Monday, June 24, 2013

Stick A Fork In Paula Deen

It seems as if every few years some celebrity slips. They forget where they are, get caught up in who they are, and think that they are so mainstream that they can actually get away with using the N-word. The latest offender is Paula Deen, one of the premiere purveyor's of deep fried meat treats, and Southern fried everything.

Many of the very dishes she fetishizes, like fried chicken, fried okra, and biscuits. Have slave roots, remnants of an African culinary culture co-opted by an entire region, and defined and marketed to the world as “Southern cooking.”

But if Southern cuisine is a racially integrated export, some of its purveyors still struggle with the region’s legacy, as revelations about Ms. Deen’s use of the word “nigger” showed this week. The now former Food Network star and Savannah, Ga., restaurateur said in a May deposition related to a harassment lawsuit involving her brother, Bubba Hiers, that “of course” she had used the word, but not in a “mean way.”

Really?! This word is seldom said in a nice way. Try using this word in a nice way. Anyone?

In part because Deen has been embraced by liberals like Oprah Winfrey and Kathy Griffin, and has been an avid Obama supporter, the N-word quotes shocked many of her fans and confirmed for many Northerners that behind that genteel facade and Sun Belt shine, the South hasn’t really changed. Those of us who pride ourselves on being firmly rooted in a little something called reality with our feet firmly planted on the ground, never brought into this whole "new south" facade anyway. 

As Chicago Now columnist John Chatz wrote, “To many of us, the South still stands for slavery and the Civil War. This may be wrong and it may be simple, but people like Paula Deen help keep these opinions alive.”

In the end, the woman who has done a lot to put Southern culture on a pedestal to be admired, heavily buttered, battered, and chowed down on, may now be responsible for raising deeper questions about whether the marketing of Southern culture and cuisine comes with a side of bigotry.The key word is marketing. Being a favorite of Oprah's practically guarantees mainstream credibility not to mention a presumed level of racial tolerance.

In the deposition itself, she claims that her view of the N-word has changed over time, she also related one time in which she used it. When asked in what context, she replied, 

“It was probably when a black man burst into the bank that I was working at and put a gun to my head.”

“What did you say?”

“Well, I don’t remember, but the gun was dancing all around my temple. I didn’t feel favorable towards him.”

Deen said she used the word when retelling the story to her husband. She said she’s used the word since then, 

“but it’s been a very long time.”

But in the deposition in a harassment lawsuit involving her brother, allegations were raised that the word frequently flies in the restaurant’s kitchen. In her deposition, Deen defended an episode from 2007 when she imagined a plantation-style wedding reception with an all-black wait staff.

On Friday, Deen made several apologies, including one that explained that she “was born 60 years ago when America’s South had schools that were segregated, different bathrooms, different restaurants, and Americans rode different parts of the bus. This is not today.”

And...................her point is?!

In a later video clip, she went farther:

 “I want to apologize to everybody for the wrong that I’ve done. I want to learn and grow from this … inappropriate, hurtful language is totally, totally unacceptable.”

The statements weren’t enough to appease the Food Network, which said Friday it will not renew its contract with Deen. The swift condemnation may hurt her long-time restaurant businesses, too, although many Americans have also rallied in her defense.

Had her slurs been in reference to the "gay community" I am sure that far fewer Americans would defend her.

But what really irked a lot of Americans about Deen’s comments is a long-held suspicion about Southern culture and its food, that it’s all honey and biscuits on top, but ultimately debilitating and unhealthy below the crust. That may not be the whole truth, but to say it’s not part of the truth would be disingenuous, especially given the controversy cooked up by arguably the South’s greatest culinary ambassador.

Paula Deen has made a fortune pedaling Southern culture and in doing so, she had an obligation to that culture. Instead she singlehandedly affirmed people’s worst suspicions of people who talk and eat like her. At least musicians who have gone on to find fortune and fame utilizing "black music", and African-American culture, have the decency to pay hommage, give credit to, and even honor those who have inspired them. In not doing so, Deen has made it that much harder to believe that the most notorious part of the Southern narrative is ancient history rather than present day.


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