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Exposing & Eliminating Racism: The Paula Deen Edition

Now is as good a time as any to expose and eliminate racism from our ideology, so why not do it with a famous cook on television, right? I have so many things to say about this Paula Deen fiasco and yet it occurs to me that everything we can learn from this starts with probably not calling it a "fiasco". It is a fiasco to her financially as she's been dropped by both the Food Network and Smithfield Foods, but the humiliating failure on her part is, seemingly, still lost on her. This morning her sons took to CNN to decry that she is the victim here and that The Media are creating this mess.

Please. We're too smart for that, Deen PR folks. 

It's Not The N-Word That's The Biggest Problem

At first, the outcry seemed to focus on the wrong things and had more to do with her casual use of the N-word and to that I refer you to listen (again, I know I trot this out a lot) to Jay Smooth's "How to Tell People They Sound Racist", but only do that at the beginning of your experience with dealing with Paula's terrible admission of using that word. If we let that trip us up then we're just touching the tip of the iceberg on where the country is with discussing racism. If that's all we can contribute to the conversation then I can't have much to do with it because that entry level understanding of race has gotten us exactly nowhere. Let's talk about the problematic implications of a philosophy that glamorized a way of living for the untold number of enslaved human beings.

Phillis Wheatley (poet) statue in Boston, Mass

Black Friend Apologia

Let's also, if we're going to move forward, talk about how to expose and eliminate the trotting out of our favorite Black friends. Let's eliminate altogether the "black friend apologia" that consistently plagues us when we're backed into a corner or feel the need to make a hasty, low-level connection with people. Let's take issue with famous White people who, having been accused, find themselves in need of Whitesplaining the complicated relationships that the South had with its Negroes. Especially, let's examine how The South is conveniently discussed in those terms to equal "White People of the South" and how claiming that pronouncement disqualifies anyone else who doesn't fit that description. When we reduce someone to the lowest common denominators that way, we're engaging in the systemic racism. Black Southerners are as much Southerners as anyone else, but somehow the qualifier finds its way into our vernacular.

This video which is making the rounds right now is a huge part of what people have failed to see about Deen.

Listening to her humiliate this man that way, not only with the darkness of his skin but with the entire relationship she has with him, reminded me of listening to George Wallace do the same thing when I watched Spike Lee's "4 Little Girls" many years ago. It was a movie that I showed in my classroom after teaching Christopher Paul Curtis's book "The Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1964" and had to stop it to discuss with my students this ENORMOUSLY problematic scene.

First, I discussed with my students the troubling issue of Wallace providing textbooks for Black children who "couldn't buy textbooks" (thus negating the entire issue of inequality of education and Jim Crow laws) and then failing to work on a system that prevented them and their parents from working after having received a sub-standard education.

Secondly, we chewed on the incredibly uncomfortable scene where he pulls his friend, Ed, into the film shot so that he can prove, without a doubt, that he loves Black people and that he "wouldn't go anywhere in the world without him" entirely echoing Deen's sentiment about her Black "friend" who is really her chauffeur. 

Watch Your Wording

It is something that I mentioned on social media this morning and I haven't yet discussed working on a project for The Kinsey Collection: Shared Treasures of Bernard and Shirley Kinsey | Where Art and History Intersect. As I read the special edition I received, I noted this brilliant quote: 

Instead of using the word "slave", use "enslaved person", thus speaking to the reality that our ancestors were human beings forced into slavery. Instead of "mercantilism", use "kidnapping". In place of "wilderness", use "home", for America was already inhabited by millions of Indians before the arrival of Europeans. Instead of "discovered", use "conquered". Instead of "plantation", use "prison", for what was a home to whites was a plot of land that our ancestors were born on, confined to, and forced to work on until their deaths.

After reading that and replacing "plantation-style" wedding with "prison-style" wedding, I can only hope that what we're learning from this is that her idealized glamorization of holding human beings hostage and making that a part of the sacred wedding ceremony is a debacle of history-sized breadths. A fiasco, if you will, for those who support this kind of thinking and accept it ignorantly.

It's a fiasco alright, one of catastrophic proportions. Not because she is (selfishly) losing out on financially being compensated for her distasteful hawking of diabetic medication (she hasn't been let go of that contract) or that she will be unable to do her unhealthy brand of "cooking" on television. But because unless we weed through her words and beliefs carefully and consider these enchanting "styles" to be as unpalatable as they are we'll eat up all the racism that is served us on a shiny silver platter and relish the appetite.

Photo credit 

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Reader Comments (9)

Well said, as always, Kelly. Her attitude and intentions are what makes this the most deplorable - she could have chosen any words to use, but it's her adoration of the "good old days" that show who she truly is.

June 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAvitable

Funny, I just wrote a piece on my blog expressing the same sentiment. It is NOT the N-word that poses the problem. It's that vague, condescending, racist-ish-ness where someone can grab the nearest Black person to them and say "Look how ok I am with this one black person! I'm not racist." but immediately blame/assume that black person stole their wallet when they misplace it.
Racism conjures visions of lynchings and white hooded people and that gives Deen's brand of subtle racism a false comfort for many. Just because you're not spray painting messages of hate across someone's window, doesn't put you in the "safe zone."

June 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJessica Vivian

I have been trying to put into words the issues of this Paula Deen situation. I have been put off by the simplification that it is just about her use of the N-word. You have said it beautifully. I agree that the time is now to combat even further the racist ideology that is so prevalent (even though we try to ignore it).

Thanks for your voice.

June 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterThe Dalai Mama

Thank you so much for putting into words how I've been feeling for years. Now I at least feel less crazy about this issue.

June 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterWill Jones

Excellent thought-provoking argument as always, Kelly.

One thing about the word choices, though. 'Prison' doesn't sound right to me. It implies punishment for a crime. There is a connection with the idea of justice.

I do not think Prison is the right word. Perhaps 'labour camps'? I don't know. What are other people's thoughts on this?

June 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterThe Advicist

Prison was landing as slightly off for me too. Maybe there isn't a culturally appropriate single-word for "farms operated by slave labor in early US/Caribbean history." That is how I've always heard the word "plantation" but it does seem like Paula Deen and others don't share my reading of that word as loaded with racism and exploitation.

June 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLiza

Prison fits for me - others such as Deen may not understand or give credence to the racialized nature of our prisons and how people get there, but that does not mean they'll learn it any better by sugar-coating it. I say use the word and explain why when they object.

Prisons have held captives who were innocent of any crime since the beginning of prisons. They've also held captives who did commit a crime, but whose sentence was far too harsh. I feel very comfortable linking the atrocity of slavery to prisons as they are today. If anything, prison feels too soft for me - at least in prison, many of the prisoners have some hope of leaving when their term is over. Slaves had a life sentence no matter what.

June 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAshley

Great conversation re: the word "prison" though I think Liza's assertion that there isn't a culturally appropriate word that would fit better is on point. In thinking about the relationship with our current prison system/culture and the incarceration of disproportionate Black people in them, it seems this slavery-to-prison pipeline is apt.

June 25, 2013 | Registered CommenterMocha Momma

Well put. When she described her vision of the wedding and particularly the "staff," (i.e. a group of men who would reenact the role of enslaved people) it disgusted me that she viewed it as some sort of charming novelty. But then I became profoundly saddened. How deep our social conditioning runs, that racism can become so ingrained in someone that they can say these things without a second thought. Then I stumbled upon this man's response: Black Man Supports Paula Deen Racist Slur (Video summary: Racism will always exist, even black people don't like black people, and Paula's only mistake was that she didn't hide her racism well enough.) What are your thoughts on this perspective?

June 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBrittany

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