Deen’s Dilemma

Perhaps we all, or at least those of us who believe in equal rights, should thank Paula Deen for her honesty. After all, she could have lied in the deposition that led to her current difficulties—the loss of her show on the Food Channel and her sudden sharp decline in commercial endorsements. She didn’t have to admit that she had ever used “the N word”. It’s not even clear, from the superficial media coverage, why that question ever came up in that particular legal case, in which a white former employee was suing Deen and her brother for harassment and maintaining a hostile work environment. But it did, and Deen admitted to saying “the word” once, and the word got out.

I can’t say much for the media discussion since then. The two topics seem to have been: (1) Whether Paula Deen’s decades of good works have been, essentially, discarded in the rush to castigate her and strip her of the benefits of her efforts, and; (2) Whether the backlash against use of “the N word” is really justified in light of its continued widespread use by rappers and comedians and the young people of all races who emulate them. This is pretty much the same set of arguments that rises to the top in any situation involving a celebrity error of this sort.

And, as usual, the controversy brings out a large number of white people who are eager to repeat the inane argument that they should be allowed to use “the N word” at any time, because, after all, black people use it all the time, don’t they? Well, actually, “they” don’t. Some or “them” do, yes, but not in the same way that most white people use it. But the argument seems to go, “If it’s okay for some, everyone should be able to use it, but if it’s bad, then nobody should use it.” The use of a word is never that simple. And personally, I’ve never understood this simple-minded minimal plea for equal treatment. By extension, can we assume that these people also believe they should be able to refer to Jews using the word that begins with “K”, or Italians using the “W” word?What about the many, many other derogatory words often used to refer to minority groups? Why not simply remove all social constraints on language, as many seem to argue today in the name of avoiding “political correctness”, and go back to the good old days when anyone could carelessly apply any type of negative stereotype to any group, without repercussions? Well, any white male could, at least. Minorities and women always had to be much more circumspect.

A new wrinkle has been introduced recently by the testimony of Trayvon Martin’s friend Rachel Jeantel in the trial of George Zimmerman. This easily indicates how complex this business of derogatory terminology can get. Ms. Jeantel spoke to Martin in a phone call just before Martin was killed by Zimmerman. In that call, Martin had used “the N word” as well as the term “cracker” to refer to Zimmerman, who was following him. In media discussions of her testimony, it was clear that almost all of the commentators wanted to simplify the definitions of those two words for the sake of argument, or they were simply incapable of allowing for complexity in the definitions, even though that is the only way to make sense of this phone call. The fact that Trayvon Martin, who is black, could use both words in a derogatory manner to refer to Zimmerman, who is white, demonstrates that “the N word” is significantly more diverse than the media pundits think it is, and, it must be said, much more diverse than the pundits themselves are, which is part of the problem. Even the minority commentators are almost all middle class and over thirty. CNN struggled onward with a lengthy discussion about which word was worse, “N” or “cracker” or “honky”, all of which completely missed the reality of the situation and almost completely bypassed any meaningful lessons we could have taken from Jeantel’s testimony.

Trayvon Martin was a young man of a certain broad sociocultural/economic group in which “the N word” is regularly used for a variety of purposes, ranging from indications of approval and group identity to rejection and social ostracism. In the case of Zimmerman the word indicated that Martin was annoyed, at least, by Zimmerman, who was tailing him as he walked near his house and talked on the phone. It’s likely that his use of the word was not intended as a positive comment. But the actual implications and connotations could only be determined in context. Without that context, to include the environment surrounding the phone conversation between Martin and Jeantel, and their own interpersonal relationship and social background, and the fact that Martin did not know Zimmermen, and the tonal inflections used by Martin, nobody can understand the true meaning of the word, or even why it was being used, in this specific instance.

The Paula Deen disputation is also fairly complex. Deen has lost her cable TV shows and millions in endorsement dollars, and unfortunately the media has linked all of this primarily to her use of “the N word” perhaps twenty years ago, causing the blogosphere to respond in outrage with the usual uninformed and unsophisticated—and sometimes racist—arguments. We can have no way of knowing how or why Ms. Deen used the word back then, but that isn’t entirely important; that was only the catalyst for this particular series of events. Paula Deen is paying the price not so much for that one-time behavior, but for the other largely media-ignored behaviors that led to the current lawsuit. Her patrons are undoubtedly responding as much to the likelihood of future bad publicity as to the current public information.

That brings us back to why we should thank Paula Deen for her honesty, and for the naïveté evident in her statements surrounding the lawsuit. For decades Ms. Deen has been filling her TV appearances and books with an exaggerated, sanitized, homey little comfort-food patter about Southern cooking and culture. Her accent and humor were always on the tipping edge of over-the-top down-home Dixie. What the lawsuit and the deposition reminded us was that that same culture has an ugly substrate of racial and religious intolerance. When it was reported that Deen wanted to stage an elaborate plantation wedding in which the mostly white guests would be served by an all-black staff in formal servant uniforms and entertained by black singers and dancers, a retro antebellum extravaganza, nobody was surprised. Many were appalled by the idea, but they were not surprised. It was, quite simply, what you would expect from a region that still defends the use of the Confederate flag as a symbol of regional tradition and culture.

The Paula Deen affair has reminded us that behind the folksy cuteness and aw-shucks friendliness of Southern expression there is the history of slavery and Jim Crow repression and a still-active “culture” of intolerance. The modern GOP Southern strategy depends on and promotes two primary regional characteristics: (1) The tendency toward religious intolerance and control which has transformed the Southern Baptist Conference, and which continues to demand the imposition of fundamentalist Christian prayer and other “demonstrations of faith” in schoolrooms and courtrooms and public meetings and athletic events, and; (2) the continuing efforts to find and apply new methods to control minorities, including putting up barriers to discourage them from registering and voting. The untroubled elegance of antebellum life was dependent on repression of those who did the inelegant work that supported it, and also on rejection of anyone who might muddy the socially stratified and filtered waters of society. The modern South has tended to resist changes in those traditional attitudes.

As Paula Deen built and maintained her down-home empire and celebrated nostalgia for Southern traditions she erected a facade to cover the underlying troubling realities, both historical and current. She may not deserve the treatment she is now getting, but it has come to her in large part because she has made herself a prominent representative of a culture inextricably tied to intolerance, types of intolerance that are now increasingly rejected by the mainstream in the United States.

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5 Responses to Deen’s Dilemma

  1. lacey says:

    Zimmerman is Hispanic and not WHITE!!!! Paula Deens story has nothing to do with Trayvon Martin’s

    • Robert Tighe says:

      lacey, you have done the same thing I accused the media of doing–greatly oversimplifying the question. Whether Zimmerman is White or not is irrelevant. Race in America is much more complex than that. And that, as I noted, is the connection between the Zimmerman case and the Paula Deen case.

      • “The stand your ground law states that a person may use force in self-defense when there is a reasonable belief of a threat, without an obligation to retreat first. In some cases, a person may use deadly force in public areas without a duty to retreat. Under these legal concepts, a person is justified in using deadly force in certain situations and the “stand your grounds” law would be a defense or immunity to criminal charges and civil suit. The difference between immunity and a defense is that an immunity bars suit, charges, detention and arrest. A defense, such as an affirmative defense, permits a plaintiff or the state to seek civil damages or a criminal conviction but may offer mitigating circumstances that justifies the accused’s conduct.”No one was there the night Mr. Martin died. The two people involved are the only two that were there. Unfortunately one is dead. But Mr. Martin was not some puny little boy, he was 6’2″ and lean. Mr. Zimmerman had demonstrable wounds to the back of his head consistent with having been on the ground. Mr. Zimmerman has been cooperative, he expresses remorse. We will probably never truly know what happen. I am sorry for the Martin’s loss, it is truly tragic when a parent loses a child. Allowing bitterness and hatred to be concealed in racial undertones is a shame. Everything is not about race. How about this is an incident between two people that have no color-I seriously doubt there would be the same outcry. Stop the racism it only hurts everyone.

        • Robert Tighe says:

          First, the danger in “stand-your-ground” (SYG) statutes is well illustrated by the Zimmerman-Martin event and its aftermath. SYG may have encouraged a man who initiated a violent confrontation to end it with deadly force. SYG distorted the police response, to the degree that the incident and crime scene was never adequately investigated. SYG also distorted the trial proceedings, making it very difficult for the prosecution to achieve a conviction.

          Second, racism was involved throughout this case. It appeared in Zimmerman’s comments about Martin, which indicated that he followed and confronted Martin in large part because he was Black. Racism appears in the background of unequal prosecutions of similar cases in Florida, where White SYG defendants are much less likely to be arrested and indicted than White ones. It also was a factor in the trial, in the treatment of witnesses, in comments by lawyers and jury members, and in the types of evidence allowed by the judge. Much of this is explained in my blog Martin and Race

      • Both of you make a fair statement. You really can’t blame tea party rhetoric making the country worse. I’m not a tea party member, but I think the reason why individuals have a tendency to get so polarized in their beliefs is the state of the economy and so people are susceptible to certain fears and change is a difficult thing for all. The case of Trayvon Martin is sad because it’s the fact that this place in America continues to be in denial about race relations in that town and want to do their own thing without any respect to civil liberties or following the law. Now I am not African-American and I am not from Texas (I’m from Hawaii) but I can definitely feel the sadness when I walk past places in TX notorious for lynchings etc. I don’t know how we are going to get past this, we all have freedoms and should not have to be afraid to wear a hoodie. We all have a right to LIFE, that is the lesson in this case – no matter what political party. People really need to get back to basics and understand wrong is just plain wrong. We all shouldn’t have to suffer for the delusions of others whether they are crazy or not.

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