Sunday, June 30, 2013

Paula Deen’s cultural diabetes

I have a Paula Deen shaped weight on my chest and I have to get it off!

So Paula Deen has opened up the festering sore of race and racism in our country with her use of the “N-word,” her racist hiring practices, and her clueless “plantation-themed” luncheon plans. Good. Let’s talk.

I was on a social networking site the other day and came across this: “As a black dude, it's a little bad, but I expect most white people to have said ‘nigga(er)’ in their lifetime.” So I thought about it, thought hard. Had I ever used it, in jest even? The answer is no, not even once, not even in my head, not even when eenie-meenie-moing. The reason, for me anyway, is that I know my past – MY past. My ancestors owned large slave plantations. Their elite lives were based forced labor, rapes, whippings, and the heartless separation of families. Then, after the war, my gr. gr. grandfather helped start the North Carolina KKK. Another gr. grandfather helped lynch a white politician who was sympathetic to the rights of the freed slaves. So for me the “N-word” is always bound in shackles and brutality.

Some people say ‘Oh, well I don’t let what someone in the past did control what I do or say now.’ As if to remember and respect the history of the word is to be a wimpy guilt-ridden white apologist. I don’t feel guilty about it. But I do recognize slavery for what it was and I condemn it, as everybody should.

Others have said, ‘She’s a 66 year old woman from Georgia. Of course she’s racist.’ Well, my aunts, great aunts, and grandmothers from all over the South – even (gasp) Mississippi – evolved with the times and became right-thinking, right-speaking human beings, even if they didn’t start out that way. Partly because they weren’t idiots, and partly because they just plain had good manners.

And yes, I totally get that minorities using words that the world has used against them is a way to redefine and take ownership of those words.

So here’s what I think about Paula Deen. She’s an idiot. It’s 2013 and she needs to bring her cracker (see what I did there?) ass into the 21st century, even if it’s only for her business interests. As my beloved grandmother said to my less-than-perfect grandfather, “Bill-Wayt, if you want any of the grandchildren to EVER come visit, you have to stop talking like that.” Paula Deen is also a celebrity and should know that everything she does is up for public scrutiny. And finally, it’s rude and hurtful and none of us need that.

Is she a scapegoat? A bit, in that she’s just the tip of the huge iceberg of American denial about race and racism. Even so, I don’t give her a pass. But I also don’t hate her, just as I didn’t hate my grandfather. People are a mixed bag and if you expect them to be all goodness and light you’re going to live a very lonely life. Can she redeem herself? Can she recover from her cultural diabetes? Of course! Failure and massive public humiliation are an opportunity to learn and to change. (Just ask Bill Clinton.) 

The first thing she should do is accept the invitation from Michael Twitty of Afroculinaria (see below).  Then she should do everything she can to learn about and promote the wonderful food that, as Michael Twitty puts it, “we made together,” black, white, and Native American, all of us.