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Deen-Fense! or I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter

June 26, 2013

Why are we having this national discussion about Paula Deen and the components of her vocabulary?

Since the story about Paula, who has served as the face of matronly Southern-fried cooking for the past decade or so, broke in the tabloid press, I think the most logical answer is that it’s sensational.

The meat, if you will, of the story is that Ms. Deen and her brother are being sued for various workplace harassment complaints. But famous folks get sued all the time… between the fact that success often results from stepping on the backs of others on the one hand, and the fact that success also draws jealousy and frivolous lawsuits on the other, this story has understandably remained relatively low-profile.

But then the content of Paula Deen’s deposition last month was made public, and the shocking revelation was made that a 66-year-old woman from south Georgia had, at some points in her life, used racial epithets.

Here’s where I make my shocked face and continue watching “Paula’s Best Dishes.” At least until Food Network decides that my watching a cooking show is somehow a detriment to the network’s support of ideals of diversity and inclusion.

Because, you see, everyone from the network that launched her popularity to the ham company where she’s been a compensated spokesperson has abandoned her in this moment of “crisis.” I’m curious whether Food Network has ideals regarding loyalty and fairness.

I’m sure you’ve guessed my stance on this. Paula Deen is not the problem. Her three videotaped apologies via YouTube notwithstanding, she really has nothing to apologize for. We are the problem. We collectively live in a nation where disconnects have always existed between the ideal and the real. We have collectively banished and ridiculed Paula for ‘fessing up to that disconnect.

Who among us has not used a cruel term in a moment of emotion or just habit and carelessness? Yes, that includes “fat,” “retarded,” and any number of other G-rated putdowns that are frowned upon but not banishable offenses.

Paula could have played dumb during the deposition. “Why no, I’ve never used such terms.” Simple as that. Reputation maintained. She’s already denying the use of inappropriate language in the context of the lawsuit. Regardless of whether you believe that denial, you have to give her credit for not making up the other part.

I don’t want to overstate my point and say that we’re penalizing Paula for telling the truth. Rather, we don’t have any place penalizing her in the first place. She hosts cooking programs. We either support her enterprise or we don’t. And even if we characterize the withholding of support as a penalty, the penalty isn’t for the act of being truthful; it’s for the content of the truth being told.

There’s nothing frivolous about the widespread usage of hateful racial epithets. However, I maintain that there is in fact something incorrect about attacking Paula Deen for:

  • Statements made under oath, when the individual is obligated to tell the truth. That’s what makes this different from, say, Dan Cathy, who voluntarily spoke his mind on the public airwaves as a representative of his company.
  • Terms used at an indistinct time in the past, said past being a social context where the terms used were embraced and normalized.
  • Racial terms which don’t so much show the speaker as being immoral as being a product of a culture that was founded largely on the immorality of human servitude and racial caste. Paula’s remorse and embarrassment over her speech is clear. It came from a cultural cradle which she has smartly climbed out of as she has gotten older and more exposed to the world.

When I was two, I used a diaper. Would you like to ridicule me for that? When I was sixteen, I mooched off my parents. Nothing yet? I lost my temper yesterday. What do I get for that?

Life is a learning process. We all make mistakes, and sometimes we just take steps from less mature to more mature behaviors. Paula’s mistakes, at least the ones under examination now, the ones she’s admitted, are over 30 years old. Let’s not make another mistake and send the message that telling the truth, that being honest and forthright when it’s necessary, is a punishable offense.

To me the most outrageous part of this situation is that we, the public, don’t seem to have a clue what we want in a media personality. Paula has developed a loyal following as an entertainer because she’s real and down-to-earth.

“Keeping it real” is a hip-hop aphorism that sums up the paradox with authenticity–you may not like everything you see or hear, but at least it’s genuine. Things that are down-to-earth tend to have dirt on them. So why would we collectively feign surprise when we see a little dirt on Paula? If you want an immaculate presentation, no blemishes or rough patches or extra weight, watch Giada de Laurentiis.

But many others don’t seem to see it that way. So let me plaster back on my surprised face. And go back to watching Paula destroy my ideals of diversity by throwing butter in a frying pan, while there’s still time.

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