By now, I'm sure that most of you have heard about the ridiculous comments made by beloved(?) chef Paula Deen. If you haven't, I'll summarize. Paula admits to using the N-word, and once planned a wedding reception where African American waiters acted as slaves to serve the white guests.
Many of her fans, as well as the rest of the world, were shocked to read the comments. Unfortunately, I was not. Deen is 66 years old, and was raised in Georgia. For those of you not from the South, racism is alive and well here.
Growing up in Memphis, TN during the 1980's and 90's, I heard slurs thrown around in causal conversation by everyone from grocery clerks to pastors. Some of them were the type that actually held African Americans in disgust. Others, I believe, just didn't know they weren't supposed to say that. It's hard to believe that this is a lesson that someone would have to learn, but down here, it's like that.
To this day, there is a nostalgic quality about the pre-Civil War days.Though not common, it's not unusual to hear someone still use the word "Yankee" to describe a northerner. What people aren't coming out and saying, or perhaps not realizing, is that they are essentially longing for the time of slavery. How can you revere the Old South without glorifying the horrendous system that was its foundation?
These attitudes are so prevalent, that I felt the need to include an examination of them in my novel The Check Out. In the book, the main character, Store Manager Larry Prescott- a white man, begins having an affair with his African American subordinate, Maxine Watkins. As with a lot of men who cheat, he justifies his actions by blaming his "frigid" wife at home. (She's got good reasons to rebuke his advances, believe me.) However, he discovers that there is another aspect of his arousal: his desire to control a black female. During the initial love making scene, Larry even goes so far as to have to repress a racial slur that he wants to yell.
These events are portrayed in a comical manner, to be sure. They do emanate, though, from a very serious origin. There is still a very large economical, educational, and empathetic gap between races in the South. Perhaps this is exaggerated in the city where I live, but elements of this issue span the entire region. Our ignorance keeps us apart from each other; this chasm, in turn, spawns more ignorance. It is a cycle that has existed for hundreds of years.
The good news is that I can see it (too) slowly fading away. By the mid 90's, the frequency in which I heard people use racist terms had significantly diminished. Today, it is shocking to hear someone actually udder the words in public. There are more chances for people of different races to interact in meaningful ways; more avenues of understanding are forming.
Unfortunately, there is still a lot of work to undertake. There are strongholds of de facto segregation that refuse to be dismantled. Most churches here are separated by skin color; most schools and neighborhoods remain divided, as well.
As for Deen, I don't know if she is an ignorant person who throws around words without knowing their power, or someone actually espousing hate. In the end, I don't believe that it matters very much. Racists use any number of excuses for their language, however none actually make it the right thing to do. There is absolutely no reason for her to use the word in today's society.
What the consequences of her admission will be are unknown. Will America still gorge themselves on her butter-rich, fat filled recipes? Or, will they decide to find other restaurants and meal makers to spend their time and money on? If so, they won't only be doing their waste lines a favor. They will be helping society, as well.