By now, the whole world knows that Paula Deen is a racist. They know she used an ugly word and said some despicable things and holds some disgusting attitudes about African-Americans. She has lost her television show on the Food Network and has been roundly castigated in the media for what she said. If there’s anyone in this world that’s fit to hate right now, it’s Paula Deen. But, here’s the thing: if she’s a racist, so am I.
That last statement probably deserves a little explanation. Ms. Deen and her brother, Earl Hiers, are being sued by former employee Lisa Jackson for sexual harassment and workplace discrimination. While being deposed, Ms. Deen was asked by the plantiff’s attorney “Have you ever used the N-word yourself?”, to which she answered “Yes, of course”. I have to say, if someone were to ask me that same question, the only truthful answer would also be “Yes, of course”. Because I have said it. More than once.
While I grew up in the south, I didn’t grow up in an overtly racist home. In fact, just saying the word “nigger” (I’m not using that ridiculous “n-word” phrase), in the presence of my parents was a fast track to severe lecture, if not a whipping. Starting school in 1967, integration was well under way and I had several black schoolmates who were always welcome in our home. Truthfully, my family has never seen any individuals different than ourselves.
Black people as a group are a different story. Racial jokes were okay (as long you didn’t say that word around my mother); not necessarily encouraged, but okay. In 1976, my grandfather was incensed when Hank Aaron hit his 715th home run, saying “Ain’t no nigger ought to break Babe Ruth’s record”. My own racism was more muted, passing through the civil rights movement as it did. Martin Luther King, Jr. was never Satan incarnate for me, but he hasn’t always been a hero, either. I may never have called him “Martin Lucifer Coon” as some I know did (and still do), but I didn’t support him or his cause. In the early 80’s when the push was on for a new national holiday recognizing Dr. King and his acheivements, I resisted. I told myself it was because no other individual was so honored and that it would cost too much. But, the real truth is I didn’t think he deserved a day because he was a black man. The sin of racism was taught to me from an early age and I learned the lesson all too well.
Is Paula Deen guilty of the sin of racism? Yes, but that’s not why we’re pissed at her. We’re pissed because she reminded us (white America) that we’re not quite as progressive as we’d like to think. Because, when most of us read what she said, somewhere deep down in the recesses of our psyches, we agreed with her. When we read what she said about ” a bunch of little n—–s to wear long-sleeve white shirts, black shorts and black bow ties” and how “in the Shirley Temple days, they used to tap dance around”, we smiled. And, when we read “Now that would be a true southern wedding, wouldn’t it? But we can’t do that because the media would be on me about that”, we said “Damn right, they would.”
There’s a feeding frenzy over Paula Deen as a result of what she said in that deposition and isn’t because what she said was wrong (it was). It isn’t because white Americans are truly invested in “justice for all” (we aren’t). This feeding frenzy is happening because it allows us to ignore the ugly things we think and say and do when comes those who aren’t quite like us. We’re worried about the speck in our sister’s eye so we don’t have to worry about the log in our own. And, until we deal with that log, our cries of racism will continue to ring hollow.