American Culture

Paula Deen, “compassionate racism” and is it always wrong to use that ugly, ugly word?

I’ve been thinking about the Paula Deen mess lately. As any number of previous posts here will suggest, I don’t have a lot of sympathy for her or her kind. At the same time, I grew up in the racist South like she did, and I see the situation in more nuanced terms than do her critics these past few days. While none of my insights let her off the hook, I do think there’s some value in them for those of us keen on fostering a more enlightened society.

Just how malicious Deen’s racism may or may not be I can’t say. Don’t know her. There are reports floating around that suggest she’s not as kind-hearted as her apologies would ask us to believe, and that may well be the case. Or she may simply be just another ignorant, albeit good-hearted cracker.

The thing that I’m pondering, though, begins with the question that apparently touched off this whole firestorm:

Have you ever used the N-word?

I’m trying to imagine how I’d answer that question if I were being deposed under similar circumstances. Have I used “the N-word”? Well, what do you mean? Have I spoken it aloud or written it down? Or do you mean have I used it against someone? And what time frame are we talking about? Most importantly, does it matter to you? If my mouth has, at any point in my life, uttered those two syllables, am I damned for eternity regardless of context or intent?

Yes, I have used the N-word. Wait – I fucking hate that euphemism. Yes, I have used the word “nigger.” Nasty word, no doubt about it, and I have used it in any number of cases in order to illustrate and emphasize just how ugly the emotions it denotes really are.

I have also used the term when mocking racists, imitating their stupidity in their own coarse, hateful language. Again, authenticity helps make the case.

So, back to my deposition. Have I used that word? Yes. Does that make me a racist? You hit the links above and decide for yourself. And if, after reading all that, you conclude that using the word in those ways makes me a racist, then you’re a fucking moron.

Words have power. They convey intent. They embody, reinforce and project ancient social codes, assumptions, ideologies, values, biases. Words have histories and subtleties and they frequently say more than the speaker even realizes. Vocabulary is a negotiated space, where speaker meets audience, each with their own filters in place, and meaning is transacted through all kinds of noise that one, or the other, or both might be completely unaware of. Words are understood and they’re frequently misunderstood.

Language is perhaps the greatest technology ever devised, a tool that soars humanity to its greatest heights. It also enables a level of cruelty and destruction that our less evolved animal friends can’t begin to dream of.

The epithet in question is so packed with negative energy that we have decided it can’t be said aloud. Which is noble in intent, because it’s a word that hurts people. However, the downside is that when we impart such grave taboo status upon it, we give it more power and exponentially amp up its potential for harm. I, quite simply, don’t believe in making hurtful language worse than it already is. I refuse to mystify it. Like every other dark impulse in the collective human soul, I believe it’s best dealt with when we drag it out in the light. Thus illuminated, we can destroy its power over us and render it powerless.

And honestly – does saying “the N-word” instead of, you know, saying the N-word, does that somehow make racism better? Is the thing itself therefore less prevalent or less evil? Or does the shadow grow larger every time we shrink from it, every time we speak like silly children afraid to say the name of a bogeyman out loud?

Yes, I said it – every time I hear somebody say “the N-word” they seem a bit sillier to me than they did the second before. It trivializes a serious issue, it emboldens the bad guys, and it patronizes African-Americans, because clearly they aren’t intelligent enough or strong enough or mature enough to confront the insult head-on.

So yes, I have used “nigger.” And while I’m ashamed of it, when I was a kid in the racist, rural South I used it in its worst form. I have also plead guilty to the charge and devoted a great deal of energy to the challenge of making sure that one day, hopefully, other children won’t grow up ignorant the way I did.

If I’m Paula Deen, and if I answer this way, do I still have a show on the Food Network?

Not all racism is the same. None of it is good and it all needs to be eradicated, but in point of fact the basic ignorant racist (“let’s dress them up like lawn jockeys”) isn’t as bad as the violent white supremacist lynch-em-all variety (and there are way more of this crowd out there than I’d like). It’s all related, of course – all forms of prejudice are rooted in ignorance and the “good-hearted” variety provides social cover for the more virulent strains.

Again, I’m not naïve and I’m damned sure not offering an apologia for Paula Deen and/or her ilk. I’m just observing that there are nuances to be considered, especially when discussing those who grew up in a racist culture before the Civil Rights movement began making some initial headway in the general direction of social justice.

Let me tell you a story. I grew up in the very white Northeast corner of Davidson County, North Carolina. In my first grade class of about 25 there was precisely one minority, a black girl named Juatina. As fate would have it, she sat right behind me. Each morning we’d have a ten-minute break period where we’d all get chocolate milk and break out a little snack that our parents (in my case, grandparents) had packed for us. I always brought Fig Newtons, which I love to this day.

Except it wasn’t quite all of us. One morning I happened to look around and noticed that Juatina didn’t have anything. No milk, no cookies, nothing. I’d never really talked to her because she was, you know, one of them, but something in me instinctively felt bad for her. Here was this poor girl in the cheapest dress you could buy and she had to sit there every day and watch all the white kids with their snacks and chocolate milk.

So I gave her a couple of my cookies.

When I got home, I told Grandmother and Granddaddy about Juatina, and they apparently felt as badly for her as I did. So from that point on they packed twice as many Fig Newtons so I could share, and they also sent extra money along with me each week so the girl could have milk each day.

This – and you knew this was coming – made me a “nigger lover.” Which I didn’t like. But I guess it bothered me less than one of my classmates not having something for break.

This story tells you something important about the innate compassion of my grandparents. The other thing you need to know is how racist they were, especially Granddaddy. Every time he’d see a black in a TV show, he’d start ranting about how “they got to be everywhere now.” He switched to the Republican Party as part of the fallout from the Civil Rights Act. He voted for George Wallace. In the same way that “dog” was the word for the furry, four-legged animals he used to hunt with, “nigger” was the word for people of African descent. And I don’t even want to think about what would have happened had a black family tried to move into our neighborhood or join our church.

He managed black employees and got along wonderfully with them. They liked him and, as odd as it has to sound after that last paragraph, he genuinely liked them. He related to them at a personal level in a way that was wholly at odds with his social and political views on them as a collective. In doing so, I suspect he was like a lot of white folks of his generation. And, for that matter, of Paula Deen’s generation.

As I noted above, we’re hearing reports that Paula was perhaps less innocent in her intent than her apology suggested, and at the minimum, her “dress them up in white coats” fantasy reflects a mindset that our society, in 2013, simply cannot tolerate. We get it – you grew up ignorant. But that doesn’t excuse staying that way. And she’s going to pay a huge price for that racism. With luck these events will motivate her to learn and grow. Hopefully it will also send a clear message to other closet Scarlett O’Haras out there that these behaviors and beliefs aren’t acceptable. The marketplace of ideas, working as intended, etc.

That said, at the human level the issue isn’t 100%, if you’ll forgive me for putting it this way, black and white. It’s tempting and satisfying to demonize the crackers, and they probably deserve no better. But our goal is to rid the society of ignorance and prejudice, and the better we’re able to understand how the odd “compassionate racist” dynamic of my grandparents, the better we’re going to be able to address the problem in ways that are truly productive.

One final note. I’ve been to Deen’s restaurant in Savannah, and it was really disappointing. If you like artery-clogging Southern-fried goodness, I can probably find you 10 or 15 places in my own hometown that are better.

Categories: American Culture, Race/Gender

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24 replies »

  1. Insitutionalised racism is a tricky one to deal with. I get it from my mother-in-law all the time, what with The Blacks and The Gays and every other The… whatever it is that seems to interfere with her personal life who isn’t white and Catholic. But then she just loves my friend who happens to be black, gay and atheist. Go figure.

    Agreed on the restaurant, too. It was a let down and every other meal we had on our honeymoon in Savannah was far and above a better experience.

  2. Bravo Sam! The hypocrisy of a society that encourages the public use of this word in music and film yet excoriates a woman for it’s use in private is dumbfounding. Words are merely a medium, intent gives structure and by adding circumstance we can derive true meaning.

    In the court transcript Paula admits to telling the big bad black bank robber pointing a gun at her head something to the effect of “Nigga please!” Subliminal racism? Absolutely. Situationally appropriate? Possibly. Has she used the word more often than admitted in the interrogatory? Probably.

    Two things immediately come to mind. One, that the most vociferous of cat-callers undoubtedly have some n-word history in their own closets, and two, what the hell has happened to empathy, compassion, and forgiveness in this country? For a nation supposedly promulgating Christian ideals we sure come across as a bunch of surly hateful sons of bitches.

  3. Excellent piece, Sam. I think the nub of it lies here, when you speak of your grandfather: “He related to them at a personal level in a way that was wholly at odds with his social and political views on them as a collective.” That’s where we are still trapped in so many ways in our society. I see it in some of the people I am close to in South Dakota – they are the kindest, biggest-hearted, most generous people I know, and would relate that way with any person one to one, but don’t ask them their views about Indians in the Black Hills… Very few of us have impeccable character in every nuanced element of what we say and how we conduct ourselves.

  4. “According to the court documents, Jackson states that she was appointed by Deen to handle the catering and staff for Bubba’s wedding in 2007, and she asked Deen what the servers should wear: “Well what I would really like is a bunch of little niggers to wear long-sleeve white shirts, black shorts and black bow ties, you know in the Shirley Temple days, they used to tap dance around,” Jackson alleges Deen told her. “Now, that would be a true Southern wedding wouldn’t it? But we can’t do that because the media would be on me about that.”

    The issue isn’t the language. The issue is the fantasy of blacks happily serving their betters. The blog We Are Respectable Negroes has some of the best writing and clearest thinking on this subject, I think.

  5. Terrific piece. I think all of this comes in context though. We let people off the hook for bad behavior when they’ve built up a resevoir of good will. Deen’s very not-innocent hypocrisy about fat food may have depleted her reservoir.

  6. Nicely done!

    I have had a similar struggle trying to imagine how I would have answered that question. I grew up in the racist North where there was an elaborate system devised to deny the racism. The n-word wasn’t as prevalent as it appeared to be when I moved South but it was certainly part of the dialogue. One of the first jokes I remember hearing was one using the word told to me by my father. Your imagined response is far superior to anything I could have come up with although I approached most of the concepts.

    I also appreciate your willingness to deal with the subject. It is an important conversation that takes place all too infrequently. I have to believe that most people my age, regardless of where they grew up, used that word. But I also believe a slightly smaller most people recognized what a nasty word it is at a reasonably early age and grew beyond it and have made attempts to move beyond racism in general. Regardless of what we are taught in our youth, there comes a point where we get to decide who we want to be. Ms. Deen is unconvincing that she decided to leave that view behind. Her whole persona is that of a gentle-woman of a bygone era; racism is part of that persona. “You are who you pretend to be …”

  7. I forgot to add that last time in Savannah my wife ate at Deen’s restaurant. Enjoyed it tremendously. Not all menu items are laden with fat and/or fried. We get to decide what we eat as well.

  8. Best response I’ve seen to this issue. The only thing I’d add is that we shouldn’t turn a blind eye to the self-congratulatory nature of the way most have chosen to deal with this. But really, what can we expect, I wonder? The modern mediasphere isn’t tuned to cope with complexity.

    And, TED Danson, surely?

  9. When I hear that question, “Have you ever used that word?”, I always want to say, “Do want everything you did at 14 held against you?” I was running with a group kinda headed up by an older guy (about 24) from Texas. He wasn’t malicious, but had some very interesting stories. I used the word, but never called anyone that directly.

    An interesting example of word usage from my life: When I was in the Army, we had a white guy that just made you feel dirty being around him. He tried showing me Polaroid pictures of him and his girl (this was WAY before the internet made that common), and was what I would consider below white trash, except he wasn’t mean. My white roommate from Kentucky, a Black guy, and I were talking, and my roommate called this guy a “white nigger.” The Black guy agreed emphatically. They decided that not all Blacks were niggers, and not all niggers were Black. The only time I’ve run across that particular usage.

    • We had that “white nigger” thing in the NC outback, too. It’s hardly less racist, though. It pretends that the word exists above and beyond the pejorative for black person. It asks us to believe that the word’s essence has nothing to do with race. It’s color-free, like “idiot” or “asshole.”

      Which, of course, is utter silliness.

      • Thanks for clarifying. I was uncomfortable with it, but as I said, that’s the only time I’ve run across it so haven’t spent much time thinking about it in the 25+ years since.

        • In Ken Kesey’s “Sometimes a Great Notion” he uses the word nigger several times but never to refer to an African-American. He doesn’t call them white niggers and the context doesn’t even seem to imply anything disparaging. Just a rather crude way of referring to a colleague or peer not unlike that ol’ sun of a bitch or something like that. Never have seen that use before or since. Still find it fascinating. Would be interested in Otherwise’s take on that as I happen to know he is intimately familiar with that book.

  10. cracker? racist, rural South? Juanita was a great girl and your kindness to her certainly made an impact in her life. I started my life out in the middle of town and my family moved out to northern Davidson County when I was five as a result of the race riots. My Dad was on the road a lot and feared that my step-mother and ‘his’ three little girls were in danger there. However, my first grade teacher in that same racist, rural South town was African-American and much sweeter than my caucasian writing teacher of the same year. So maybe this ‘cracker’ learned earlier than most that skin color isn’t what matters it’s how you talk about and treat other people.

  11. My first comment address your conundrum of “how would I answer that question” and my second on an idiosyncratic use of the word that I have come across.

    But this story lives on and i now find it necessary to address Deen herself. I saw a news account of her crying and begging for forgiveness. But it seems to me she has entirely missed the point of the brouhaha.

    I can accept that the original question was unfair and caught her off guard. Fine. But she blew the answer. She lost control when she told of dressing middle aged black men up like slaves for a plantation party. I have not seen anyone condemning her for what she said 30 years ago. She is getting blasted for what she is saying now. She whines she “is not an actress” … please. She makes millions of dollars for being a national celebrity. This is the world she chose, this is the world in which she has made millions of dollars, and this is where she blew the answer.

    She probably could have spent a couple thousand dollars sitting down with a PR person to help her answer the questions more reasonably. Is she racist? Don’t know. But there a good chance she is a kind, caring person. But she is not a volunteer for Meals on Wheels; she is a multimillionaire who should be able to handle this kitchen heat. She isn’t getting blasted for being racist; she is getting blasted for getting in over her head and not asking for help. Why doesn’t Lindsey Lohan hire a driver. Not much difference.

  12. Fnay

    I think Sam makes an interesting point, making the N word the word that should not be spoken gives it a power it should not have. So I applaud when Ken Kesey or Chris Rock is able to use it in a way that takes away some of that power. I’ve used it myself in fiction, but carefully and to purpose.

    However, one thing I learned as an older white male with a southern accent in business is to never, ever, ever say anything whatsoever that in anyway whatsoever mentions race, sex or ethnicity. We old white guys have too many sins on our plate to be given the benefit of the doubt, and no matter what you said or thought you said, that might not be what people heard. Once a colleague heard a comment of mine that said that the AIDS epidemic would change the demographics and economies of cities with heavy gay populations as an enthusiastic endorsement of the epidemic because it would wipe out gays. I will go to my grave saying that’s not what I said, but I learned to simply stay away from that.

    I’m from South Carolina. Nigger was never just another word. It was always nasty and demeaning. Yes, people said it far more often, but it was never, ever positive or even neutral. It was not allowed in my house for any reason, and my parents were as racist as they come. OK, if Paula used it pre-1964, we can give her a pass. If she used it after that, she’s a shit.

    • Personally I have to believe that individual growth has been possible after 1964 but I absolutely agree it is a nasty, nasty word and anyone who uses it is far below whatever it connotes.

      And I certainly do not want to be in a position of defending Ms. Deen. I do not know whether she is racist or not (although at this point she has made it far easier to believe she is) and, from what little I know of her, I would be amazed if I liked her or could even tolerate her in real life. But that is neither her nor there.

      The point I am trying to make in this string is that her problems are basically a public relations disaster. She made a mess of the answer in the deposition but, at that point, she had room to recover. She made horrible choices in trying to do “damage control” and made great strides in making the case that she is a racist in 2013 not in 1964 or whenever she says the last time she use the n-word was. I think the loss of jobs, sponsors and endorsements have more to do with her response now than what she said in 1964. The brand was highlighted in the deposition … she destroyed it in the defense of her response.

      Note: Her book sales are through the roof. My guess is she’ll be back if she can be convinced to shut up for awhile. Sad but probably true. Anthony Bourdain was right about her and, interestingly, an African-American co-worker was talking about this “event” and said she always considered Deen a terrorist due to her cooking philosophy.

      • 1.I didnt make my point well before but public figures, wealthy southerners, and employers are held and should be held to a higher standard. It appears she’s failed.
        2. Of course she’s a racist. We all are. It’s just a matter of how hard we try to overcome it, which in her case appears not to be very hard.
        3. Oh, make no mistake, Supreme Court decision or no SCOTUS decision, there’s a large portion of the country that agrees with her original comments, and most of that’s in the South. Can you say “The Confederate Cooking Channel, presented by Fox?”

  13. Vert well put. This is not the 1930, 1940, 1950, 1960, 1970, 1980, 1990, 2000 it’s 2013 we have past all that. I was born 1953 and I have seen. I believe god or whatever your god you believe in created us all equal around the world and we are learning to live with each other as that is the plan I beleive some people and maybe all of us are really just beginning to learn about each other which I think is finally progress.And progress moves on.

  14. Just read where Anthony Bourdain says he got death threats after criticizing Paula Deen, which is interesting becaus yesterday I got some scary comments for talking about Tebow.