Paula Deen and the N-Word

by Bill Brenner on June 24, 2013

I’m not a fan of cooking celebrity Paula Deen. When I first heard The Food Network fired Deen for using the N-word in the past, I figured she got what she deserved. But part of me feels sorry for her.

Here’s one of three apology videos she made:

According to various news reports, including an item in The Huffington Post, Deen’s troubles stem from her admission that she used the N-word in the past. She said so as an attorney  questioned her under oath last month. “Yes, of course,” Deen said. “[But] it’s been a very long time.” Deen and her brother, Bubba Hiers, are being sued by a former manager of their Savannah, Ga., restaurant — Uncle Bubba’s Seafood and Oyster House — who is accusing them of racism. From the HuffPost article:

The ex-employee, Lisa Jackson, says she was sexually harassed and worked in a hostile environment rife with innuendo and racial slurs. During the deposition, Deen was peppered with questions about her racial attitudes. At one point she’s asked if she thinks jokes using the N-word are “mean.” Deen says jokes often target minority groups and “I can’t, myself, determine what offends another person.” Deen also acknowledged she briefly considered hiring all black waiters for her brother’s 2007 wedding, an idea inspired by the staff at a restaurant she had visited with her husband. She insisted she quickly dismissed the idea.

If the accusations are true, Deen deserves the blow to her reputation, because it suggests she’s not being entirely truthful in that she and her family have no tolerance for racial slurs. But many of us would also be two-faced if we took joy in her predicament.

I’ve never cared about a person’s color, sexual orientation or religious beliefs. All that has ever mattered to me is that people be good to each other and live their lives with generous hearts. But as a young and stupid kid, I’d sometimes use the word for sheer shock value. It was the same attitude that made me think it would be cool to walk around wearing a Charles Manson T-shirt.

I went through a phase where I listened to a lot of angry hip-hop in which the artists used the N-word constantly. One of my favorites was Ice T’s band Body Count. This song gives you a pretty good idea of what unfolds throughout the album:

The songs were a reaction to how they dealt with racism, but my attitude was that if they used the N-word, I could. Racism never had anything to do with it.

Back then, I thought it was a big joke. In my drunken moments, I would play the most violent songs on the album (“Cop Killer” and “There Goes the Neighborhood”) and cackle myself blue. My attraction to that album illustrates what an angry person I was back then. I was spiritually adrift.

As I got older and matured, I got over it. Today, I hear the N-word and it makes me sick. I know the pain that word has caused so many good people, and it shames me that I once used it like it was nothing.

Having learned the lesson long ago, I can’t help but wonder if Paula Deen reached the same conclusion at some point — that racist language is intolerable. I hope so. The reaction against her is a sign that our society has become a lot more intolerant of racial hatred. It shows that society has evolved.

But we’re not done answering for the past.

In any event, I don’t her entire career should be destroyed over something she said decades ago, when a lot of us were using the same language.

Paula Deen

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Jim M June 24, 2013 at 5:38 pm

Well done Bill. This is an issue with many dimensions. The racism itself is contemptible, and without defense. You didn’t mention the part where she wanted an event staffed by black men and women in servant attire, just like the old days.
And that’s my second point, and why I think her words are inexcusable – the Good Old Days. If we think it’s ok to judge past actions of people by today’s standards, then we were all raised by mysoginsitic, racist, classist religious bigots who thought it was OK to drink while pregnant, not wear seat belts, smoke anywhere and everywhere without regard to known health issues. Because that’s the way it was. But Paul Deen was born in 1947. She was 21 when the Civil Rights movement was in full swing in 1968. Her wonder years were smack in the midst of the desegregation wars in the south. She knew better.
And all that aside, common sense, and the love of fellow man should have told her this was wrong long ago. The only reason she’s apologizing is she’s been publicly shamed.

Tom Lowery June 29, 2013 at 9:38 am

Sorry Bill, but I find some of your comments absurd. Likewise those of Jim M. This ridiculous notion that her words “suggest” she is guilty of being racist is like saying the sky suggests the world is coming to an end. The complaints made against her in the lawsuit actually have little to do with her as opposed to her brother. And your notion of her having to “answer” for using the N word 30 years ago makes me wonder where you logic stems from. That’s pretty narrow thinking. Perhaps it is you who have issues with your past and not her.

I personally do not think she has anything in her past to apologize for. If she is guilty of anything, it is of being too protective of her brother and of having blinders on as to what was happening around her – which many have. The woman who brought the lawsuit has made no allegations against Deen as to her being racist.

I find it shocking and disturbing that people are assuming.

I agree that such language is intolerable. But being someone who has been on the receiving end of black people’s racism, this is not simply a white person’s issues. It is a human one. Furthermore, it exists within the black community itself from blacks to blacks. If you are going to blog about such things, you might be more aware and more in tune with reality as oppose to your own guilt about your past.

Add to that the notorious homophobia that comes from blacks as a whole, not to mention the use of the N word from blacks (who have no special rights in my eyes any more than other people do) and I am even less inclined to your notions of what is acceptable.

Am disappointed at this post of yours. But on reflection, not surprised.

Tom Lowery

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