Why Paula Deen Matters

By now, you probably know that Paula Deen, Food Network star, has been let go after details of a deposition she gave in a sexual harassment lawsuit were given to the press. In that deposition, Deen admitted to using sexist and racist slurs, sexist slurs more recently than racist.

Some of the reaction to this has been brilliantly painful, such as the Twitter activity on the #paulasbestdishes hashtag. Some of it has been merely painful, such as the defenses of her by her fans on Facebook.

Some of it is probably well intentioned but badly misses the mark. The perennial example of this sort of thing is the person who thinks the best way to denigrate Deen is by talking about her weight. Other people suggest that Deen was already a joke before the deposition, a person who would deep fry a ball of fat to give it extra flavor or someone with [gasp] a Southern accent.*

I get what comments like these are trying to do. They’re trying to spare the hurt of people who Deen’s comments targeted by minimizing her. There’s just one little problem. The emotional pain of a situation like this exists and should be recognized , but it’s one of the least ugly bits of the scenario that we’re talking about.

To illustrate, let me reproduce one part of the deposition that’s gotten some coverage. I’ve removed anything that isn’t the conversation between Deen and the person questioning her.

Q: Okay. So was Lisa ever present when you discussed with Brandon what kind of wedding you’d like to have?

A: I don’t recall that. I recall– […] I remember us talking about the meal.

And I remember telling them about a restaurant that my husband and I had recently visited. And I’m wanting to think it was in Tennessee or North Carolina or somewhere, and it was so impressive. The whole entire wait staff was middle-aged black men, and they had on beautiful white jackets with a black bow tie. I mean, it was really impressive.

And I remember saying I would love to have servers like that, I said, but I would be afraid that somebody would misinterpret.

Q: The media might misinterpret it?

A: Yes, or whomever–

Q: Okay.

A: –is so shallow that they would read something to it.

Q: Were they dressed in white shorts and bow ties?

A: No, they were dressed in white jackets.

Q: White jackets?

A: Dinner jackets.

Q: And a bow tie?

A: And a bow tie and black trousers, and they were incredible.

Q: Okay. And you said something–

A: These were men that had made their living off of service and people in a restaurant.

Q: Right.

A: It was–I was so impressed.

Q: Okay. And they were all black men?

A: Yes. Professional servers and waiters.

Q: And when you described it to Miss Jackson, did you mention the race of–well, you had to have mentioned the race of the servers–

A: Of course I would–

Q: –because that’s the part that–

A: –because that’s what we just experienced.

Q: Right. Do you know what word you used to identify their race?

A: I would have used just what I just told you.

Q: Black or African-American?

A: Black. I would use the word black.

Q: Okay.

A: I don’t usually use African-Americans [sic].

Q: Okay.

A: I try to go with whatever the black race is wanting to call themselves at each given time. I try to go along with that and remember that.

Q: Okay. So is there any reason that you could not have done something just like that but have people of different races?

A: Well, that’s what made it […] so impressive. These were professional. I’m not talking about somebody that’s been a waiter for two weeks. I’m talking about these were professional middle-aged men, that probably made a very, very good living–

Q: Okay.

A: –at this restaurant. They were trained. The–it–it was the whole picture, the setting of the restaurant, the servers, their professionalism.

Q: Is there any reason you couldn’t have found middle-aged professional servers who were of different races?

A: Listen, it was not important enough to me to even fight, to reproduce what that restaurant had. I was just simply expressing an experience that my husband and I had, and I was so impressed.

Q: Did you describe it as a–that that would be a true southern wedding, words to that effect?

A: I don’t know.

Q: Do you recall using the words “really southern plantation wedding”?

A: Yes, I did say I would love for Bubba to experience a very southern style wedding, and we did that. We did that.

Q: Okay. You would love for him to experience a southern style plantation wedding?

A: Yes.

Q: That’s what you said?

A: Well, something like that, yes. And–

Q: Okay. And is that when you went on to describe the experience you had had at the restaurant in question?

A: Well, I don’t know. We were probably talking about the food or–we would have been talking about something to do with service at the wedding, and–

[Discussion establishing who was present.]

Q: Is there any possibility, in your mind, that you slipped and used the word “nigger”?

A: No, because that’s not what these men were. They were professional black men doing a fabulous job.

Q: Why did that make it a–if you would have had servers like that, why would that have made it a really southern plantation wedding?

A: Well, it–to me, of course I’m old but I ain’t that old, I didn’t live back in those days but I’ve seen pictures, and the pictures that I’ve seen, that restaurant represented a certain era in America.

Q: Okay.

A: And I was in the south when I went to this restaurant. It was located in the south.

Q: Okay. What era in America are you referring to?

A: Well, I don’t know. After the Civil War, during the Civil War, before the Civil War.

Q: Right. Back in an era where there were middle-aged black men waiting on white people.

A: Well, it was not only black men, it was black women.

Q: Sure. And before the Civil War–before the Civil War, those black men and women who were waiting on white people were slaves, right?

A: Yes, I would say that they were slaves.

Q: Okay.

A: But I did not mean anything derogatory by saying I loved their look and their professionalism.

There is then a brief bit about how people would have talked if Deen had hired an all-black waitstaff for her brother’s wedding and how she was sad that she couldn’t just afford to have that restaurant from a state or two away come cater the wedding. Apparently it was a great disappointment that she couldn’t go back, even for the brief period of a wedding reception, to those days when black men (and women) dressed in uniforms that robbed them of individuality and served white people ever so professionally.

Are those statements incredibly, face-palmingly lacking in self-awareness? Yes. Are they the statements of a clown?

No, those are the statements of someone whose cooking empire is estimated to have brought her $17 million last year. Those are the statements of someone making hiring decisions, both for that wedding and for the restaurant at the center of the sexual harassment suit, as well as for whatever staff she personally oversees. Whether you personally think her schtick is silly, this is a person people like and look up to.

And she thinks it would be nice if people would look away long enough for her to recreate that moment of race-based servitude that she so enjoyed. She thinks middle-aged men with bow ties and proper professional deference aren’t nigger–but that some other, undefined group of black people are. She thinks “nigger” and “pussy” are fine and dandy things to call people who have scared her or pissed her off.

That’s already bad in someone with next to no power. Paula Deen isn’t someone with next to no power. Maybe you already laughed at her for something that has nothing to do with this deposition. Fine. But that doesn’t mean the rest of us can just dismiss this–and her–now. This isn’t clowning around.

*You don’t really want to make me do the work to explain to you why that last one is bad, do you?

Why Paula Deen Matters

13 thoughts on “Why Paula Deen Matters

  1. 2

    *You don’t really want to make me do the work to explain to you why that last one is bad, do you?

    Not to me, but the second item in that list seems out of place. This is a woman who has gotten rich by pushing poison. How is she any better than McDonald’s or Phillip Morris?

  2. 3

    I read about this (though I have not read the deposition) yesterday, but was unaware of the sexist comments. In fact no mention was made in the two articles I read. I say this not to dispute you, but to wonder why some in the media had such focus on the one, but not the other.
    Is there an effective way to convince others why racist epithets or sexist slurs are unacceptable? We have seen in the anti-feminist crowd who love to claim certain words are not sexist and deny their impact. They have been given explanations, but live in denial.

  3. 4

    Dysomniak: your statement is based off wrong assumptions or false knowledge. Common knowledge about what causes fat people is about as far from ‘true’ as you can be without being not even wrong.

  4. 5

    Is there an effective way to convince others why racist epithets or sexist slurs are unacceptable? We have seen in the anti-feminist crowd who love to claim certain words are not sexist and deny their impact.

    FWIW, I’m not sure there’s a way to get through to the anti-feminist crowd, since they’re strongly motivated to be antagonistic. As such the whole “they’re just words, and so it’s your problem is you’re offended” defense is appealing, since it shifts the responsibility for your words onto someone else.

    My (now adult) kids, however, are reasonable people who want to do the right thing. So – after overhearing some unacceptable language from them while gaming with their friends – I illustrated the problem with this stance for them with a true story.

    When I was in grad school, my lab group included another student who was introduced to me as “Kathryn.” Now, I’d known a ton of similarly named girls/women, and every one of them referred to themselves as “Cathy,” “Kathy,” or even “Cath” – so I immediately slipped into calling her “Kathy” – it seemed like a natural thing to do.

    Well, after a couple of weeks, she took me aside and told me, quite firmly, that she didn’t like being called “Kathy” – her name was “Kathryn” – full stop.

    As you might guess, I was taken aback. The first thoughts that flashed through my mind were defensive ones, along the lines of “what-the-hell is her problem? Why is she being so touchy?”

    This was easy for me to do, since I already knew that we weren’t destined to be friends (our personal styles were quite different). Thus, I didn’t particularly care if she liked me or not. And my motives were as pure as the driven snow – it never occurred to me that she would be offended by something so common. In addition, I have a rather difficult-to-pronounce first name, so I’m used to being called variants – I typically fell in with whatever people wanted to call me (in fact, my nym is one of these, lol). I don’t care what people call me at all, as long as it’s well-intentioned.

    So, yeah – my initial reaction was that the problem was hers, not mine.

    But – and this is the most important part – I didn’t SAY any of the above… particularly since a second set of thoughts intruded: whether I liked her or not, we were in the same lab group – so getting along was important. And – regardless of my own casual approach to my name, she had a right to be called what she wanted to be called. I had no real emotional investment in calling her “Cathy,” and could easily change my behavior, so why go to war with her over something so trivial (to me, at any rate)?

    The upshot was that I apologized for offending her and – from that point on – I called her “Kathryn.” We never did become friends (as predicted), but our relationship stayed cordial and friction-free, which was the whole point. I never really understood her sensitivity about her name – she didn’t volunteer a reason, so I didn’t ask… regardless of my fee-fees, I realized that she didn’t owe me an explanation.

    Point being, it’s about getting along with people. Either you value it or you don’t. There’s nada to be gained – and plenty to lose – by causing needless offense. It’s the ones who refuse to examine the impact of their words that are being “overly sensitive,” IMHO.

  5. 6

    Q: Is there any possibility, in your mind, that you slipped and used the word “nigger”?
    A: No, because that’s not what these men were. They were professional black men doing a fabulous job.

    Whoa. I mean…

    That’s an incredible statement. If I were questioning her, I would have asked, “You say that’s not what these men were, does that mean there are some black men who are n——-s?”

    There’s the racism. Regardless of whether she said the word out loud or if that wedding conversation was just confusion, if you think there is such a thing as a “n—-,” then you are a racist. “Paula, tell us more about the good ones.”

    The word is a slur, it doesn’t actually have an applicable definition.

  6. 7

    I should acknowledge that Stephanie made the same point in the post. I was just blown away as I hadn’t seen the transcript. It’s kind of stunning, these days, to run into racism that hasn’t been sugar coated with dogwhistles.

  7. 9

    Her idea of a southern plantation wedding reminds me of a lot of Shirley Temple movies. I guess, considering her age and the culture she grew up with, I shouldn’t be surprised by this. As time goes by people tend to forget the horrors of past decades and only remember what they consider to be the good things. (Hence so many politicians and conservatives thinking the 50’s were the Golden Age of Western Culture). As for people freaking out over the racism but not the sexism, give it time. It wasn’t all that long ago that behavior like this was actually considered respectable. It started getting some seriously bad press during the 80’s when blackspolation films were no longer in vogue and the Generation Xers were giving the Yuppy Generation grief over a lot of their values. The Global and Internet generations are putting us all to shame, and I’m glad for that.

    We, as a society, are getting better about equality. Look at how far (and fairly quickly, though not quickly enough) homosexuals have come since Stonewall. Woman’s Lib started shortly thereafter and we are slowly chipping away at the patriarchy, although it does seem to be one step forward, two steps back more often than not. However I think that is nothing more than the death throes of bigotry; we all knew it wasn’t going to go quietly into that dark night.

    But each generation is getting better, opening their eyes and their minds to what it means to be human. We aren’t living in segregated societies anymore and it is much harder to hate or ‘other’ someone that you actually know and have first hand experience with. All we need to do is keep up the pressure and publicly call out bigotry and bad behavior in general, make sure the younger generations have a voice and be prepared to get out of the way (and listen) when we’re called out on our own cultural bias.

  8. 10

    Dysomniak; it’s the obvious elephant in your room, and the dog whistle in your statement regarding poison. If you’d prefer me to reword my comment to exclude references to fat people, s/causes fat people/nutrition will suffice. The message is the same.

  9. 13

    Dysomniak: again, if you sub out the three words “causes fat people” with the single word “nutrition”, my statement is still true. The cause of clogged arteries (rather, atherosclerosis) is largely unknown. It is worsened by fatty foods once it has started, but a normal intake of fat also worsens the condition. Diabetes, too, has far too complicated a set of causes to be put down to “poison”.

    Again, your dog whistles are transparent to me. Pretend pedantry saves your argument if you like, but you only injure people with misinformation.

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