Why Paula Deen Matters

re-blogged from ChangeLab

The Food Network dumped Paula Deen. While many are angry at them, it seems to me to be a pretty okay outcome. After all, Deen went from local restaurant owner to multimillionaire culinary superstar with their help. And all of this in a country in which many restaurant workers are denied sick leave, and most earn less than a livable wage.

And while the decision seems sudden, I’m guessing the Food Network has been aware of Deen’s nasty little race problem for a while. In her own autobiography, she admits to having been stopped from presenting a recipe for a Sambo burger to her audience. So this wasn’t a one-strike-and-you’re-out kind of situation. Anyway, I’m just not able to muster sympathy for someone who expresses a desire for a traditional Southern plantation style wedding with all black waiters (which, if you know something about traditional Southern plantations, as Deen admits she does, would mean the wait staff would be playing the parts of slaves).

Regardless, in the days since she got dumped, the Food Network’s Facebook page has exploded with threats of boycotts, with some of Deen’s supporters throwing n-bombs in the process of defending their idol. Then this past Sunday, the New York Times ran a story about the line down the block that formed outside of Deen’s Savannah restaurant. That line was like a protest march in support of Deen who those on line defend as someone who should be forgiven for clinging to racism for going on seven decades now because she was “born at another time.”

I find all of this troubling. Not surprising, mind you, but troubling. Why? Because those arguing that Deen should be forgiven fail to understand something really basic that’s at stake. Whites of that other time being referred to, basically the 1950s and 1960s, were indeed raised in a culture of racism so thick it would have been difficult to see through it. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t have choices. There has always been resistance to racism among whites, and denying it is historical revisionism.

I was reminded of that this past Friday, June 21. On that date, 49 years ago, two white men, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman (along with an African American man named James Chaney) were murdered by a Ku Klux Klan lynch mob near Meridian, Mississippi because they were registering black voters. Also in June, 46 years ago, the Supreme Court decision in the Loving v. Virginia case struck down laws banning interracial marriage. Richard Loving was a white man, and the Loving case dominated the news cycle for months, especially in the South.

You’d have to have been living under a rock to be ignorant of these events back in the 1960s. Paula Deen made choices, even if her choice was to see no evil, hear no evil, and speak…okay, well, two out of three anyway. But there’s more.

When I started my career 34 years ago, I wrote with a typewriter. Wite-Out was an essential tool. When I made typing errors, I had to stop, paint them out, and then wait for the paint to dry before I could type over them. I did a whole lot of typing, so this ritual was like a reflex to me. I did it automatically and I did it uncritically because that’s just how it was done.

If my boss caught me using Wite-Out on my computer screen today, and repeatedly, in spite of having it pointed out that it is out of sync with the times and is damaging the equipment, would you blame her if she fired me? No. You might feel sorry for me for being “born in another time,” but you’d probably agree with my boss that I’m just not adaptable enough for a job that requires word processing on a computer. Same is true if I insisted on exclusively using land lines in a mobile business or only used postal mail in a business requiring speedy communication.

The point here is that the context for the kind of racism that Paula Deen grew up with has changed. Deen herself has changed. She couldn’t be a successful businesswoman if she was the same person she was in 1965, and last I looked she wasn’t walking around in poodle skirts and bobby socks. But, there is a pile of evidence growing that in the course of all that change, certain ideas about race have stayed pretty much the same.

If we’re genuinely concerned about racial equity, rather than defend her for failing to adapt to a new racial consensus (that, by the way, exists because we got past the idea that people of color are subhuman), we might just ask ourselves why those racist ideas have survived, even when so many other things like Wite-Out and sending most of our mail by post have gone by the wayside. There’s an important lesson to be learned from Deen’s story. Of course, that lesson is only valuable if we wish to make the kind of changes that it demands of us.

 

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