Here's what I don't understand about this whole Paula Deen thing: What the hell took us so long? I mean the woman has been openly bigoted on national television at least once, as this video indicates (from fall 2012), and yet there she is, still on television.
Though she's had critics, why has she ultimately enjoyed such fame as a spokesperson for so many companies? Why are people like her spokespeople for anything other than Type 2 diabetes?
Sorry. That wasn't very nice.
But come on. I'm getting pretty tired of things like this and Trayvon Martin and people still saying racism doesn't exist in this country. It's a thing of the past. It was "fixed" by that civil rights movement and laws, anti-segregation and all. I don't see what the big deal is! I don't see racism! (You know who says that? White people.)
Oh, yes. We're just a big melting pot of equality now. (That sentence? It was dripping with sarcasm.)
And yet we have people like Deen saying on national television (same interview with The New York Times' TimesTalks) that the South is "almost less prejudiced" because historically "black folks played such an integral part in our lives. They were like our family."
Oh, is that right, Paula? You mean as slaves? You mean the people who were stolen from their homes and forced into chattel slavery? Bought and sold?
What a family. A nice, big African diasporic family.
Or maybe you're talking about the era of Jim Crow laws, reconstruction after the Civil War, home rule and public lynchings, postcards sent out to California with photographs of those very lynchings and a bunch of white folk standing around sipping cocktails, grinning.
I can't go on. It's too graphic for this article. But you can Google it. And you will cry.
Who exactly are you, Paula, to redefine history in your honor? Who are you to erase the facts, skew our shared past into some glossed-over creation of your own ignorance and privilege?
Oh, yes. That's right. You're white. You get to do that.
And nobody cares. Not only does nobody care, but the country makes you famous, sticks you on national television as the Queen of Butter and good ol' fashioned Southern cookin'.
You don't believe she said this nonsense? Watch the video referred to above.
All this "family" talk was on the coattails of a heartfelt lament about her great-grandfather, a plantation and slave-owner, who allegedly committed suicide after the Civil War, when he "lost all the workers." No joke. Here's what she said:
"He had lost his son, he had lost his war, he didn't know how to deal with life with no one to help operate his plantation… Between the death of his son, and the loss of all the workers, he went out I'm sure into the barn and he shot himself because he couldn't deal with those kinds of changes, and they were terrific changes. I feel like the South is almost less prejudiced because black folks played such an integral part in our lives. They were like our family."
Forgive me if my sympathies are not with your great-grandfather. The loss of all "the workers?" Really? Those were humans. Those were enslaved humans. How is that fact omitted? Why are we focusing on the white guy profiting from the enslavement of human beings? And why are we calling them "workers?" My husband is a "worker." Slaves were slaves. They were only "workers" from the perspectives of their "owners."
I feel sick.
Rewriting and omitting
And that little disclaimer "they were terrific changes." That would be way more convincing if she actually included black people in her definition of the South. She says "the South is almost less prejudiced because black folks played such an integral part in our lives."
Deen aligns herself with "the South" ("our lives") and Southern history while simultaneously excluding blacks from that history by reducing them to mere actors playing a "part" in the lives of those who constitute the actual South (in other words, whites). Beyond that, the fact that she values African Americans in terms of what they offered "the South" — or, those who enslaved them — is shocking in its implications.
At the very least, we're back to the "us vs. them" thing, I see.
That's weird. I thought the civil rights movement took care of that sort of mentality!
Oh, but it gets better. She punctuates her verbal spew with this fun little nugget: "I have a young person in my life — his name is Hollis Johnson — he's as black as that board." Deen tells him to stand up, the interviewer invites him onto the stage and Deen provides some gushing account of her love for this man (who is her employee, FYI).
She literally paraded a black man on a stage as proof of her own anti-racism. Are you kidding me? She used him like a prop. Like the token "black friend." I'm not racist. I have a black friend.
You know what Deen said when Hollis gets to the stage? "We can't see you standing in front of that dark board!"
The audience bursts into laughter.
I'm wondering what they're laughing at.
The stage, the laughter, the one-liner joke at the expense of this man — it could be a snippet from a talk show from the 1950s. And the audience, laughing.
People are going to say I'm nit-picking this woman's diatribe to gain fodder for my own agenda. Clearly, that isn't necessary. She's obviously provided way more fodder than anybody will ever need.
The reason I've dissected the language of this video is to make this point: Paula Deen openly displayed profound levels of ignorance and bigotry on national television with absolutely no repercussions. I'm sure there were a few bloggers or columnists reacting, but she felt no material loss. At least not enough to lose big contracts, obviously.
What Deen demonstrates is that racism is not usually displayed through loud slurs and explicitly offensive jokes (although she admits to doing that, too). Rather, it's often a quiet retelling of history, the erasure of a million voices through a few choice words, a story told with a certain gloss, a prettier hue (unless you're on the wrong side of history, of course, in which case I imagine it's the ugliest fable you've ever heard).
This woman sat on a stage on national television and erased one of the darkest histories of humankind in favor of the white fantasy in her own head.
The problem is not that she did it. Ignorant people will always exist.
The problem is that nobody did a damn thing about it.
Ignorant people will always exist.
The problem is that nobody did a damn thing about it.
What do we as parents do about it?
As a mother of three children, two of whom are in grade school, and as a person who went through the American school system, I am acutely aware of the stories being repeated to my kids on a daily basis, many of them completely in tune with the nonsense above.
We all know the story: America is the land of the free and brave. The new, promised land. Manifest destiny. City on the hill. Fertile ground for budding American dreams, of every shape and color.
Well, yes. There were a few [million] Native Americans who suffered for this "destiny." And, well, yeah. The slavery thing, and Jim Crow and segregation. And the Japanese Internment. And anti-miscegenation laws. And all those anti-immigration laws based on race. And the colonization of the Philippines, among a few other places.
But those are all mere blips in the long and glorious democratic history rooted in freedom, equality and justice for all!
This isn't the story my children hear from me. They don't get the glossed-over version. What they get is the truth: America is a wonderful place to live and we are lucky to be here, but this country is not perfect nor is it exceptional. It has engaged in some of the darkest acts imaginable in perpetuation of its own power, and human beings on our soil and across the world have suffered for it.
This is a fact.
We can either talk about it or we can erase it.
Deen chooses erasure.
What do you choose?