On Paula Deen

[Content Note: Racism; anti-Semitism; homophobia; violence.]

Reports surfaced a few days ago that TV cooking icon Paula Deen is facing a discrimination suit centered around "racially discriminatory attitudes" at Uncle Bubba's Oyster House, a restaurant owned in part by Deen and her brother Earl "Bubba" Hiers. The transcript of a videotaped deposition Deen gave last month as part of the suit has now been made available online, and it is terrible.

I have not read the entire thing, but, of the bits I've read, two parts in particular struck me:
Lawyer: Have you ever used the N-word yourself?
Deen: Yes, of course.

Lawyer: Okay. In what context?
Deen: Well, it was probably when a black man burst into the bank that I was working at and put a gun to my head.

Lawyer: Okay. And what did you say?
Deen: Well, I don't remember, but the gun was dancing all around my temple … I didn't — I didn't feel real favorable towards him.

Lawyer: Okay. Well, did you use the N-word to him as he pointed a gun in your head at your face?
Deen: Absolutely not.

Lawyer: Well, then, when did you use it?
Deen: Probably in telling my husband.
Two things that lots of white people do: 1. Use mistreatment (real or perceived) by a person of color as a justification to whip out racist epithets. 2. Use racial epithets in the privacy of their own homes, or in any other space they perceive will be "safe" to let fly the racial slurs.

I shouldn't need to say this, but there is a problem if racist epithets come to your mind when you're angry. And that problem is that you have granted yourself permission to use those epithets. The idea that we only use epithets if we say them aloud, directed at someone to whom they apply, is bullshit. If you're using them to redirect your anger at another human being's individual behavior into an expression of hatred for their race, you're still using epithets.

In your head, under your breath, in the intimate space between you and your spouse—it doesn't matter. This shit is in your lexicon because you've allowed yourself to believe that these words, and the monolithizing thoughts of hatred they represent, are justified in certain circumstances.

If you don't allow yourself that permission, the word that comes to mind when anyone cuts you off in traffic, say, is "asshole." Or "jerk." Or "reckless nightmare whose license should be put in a cannon and shot into the sun!" Or whatever. Not a slur.

And, depending on our individual backgrounds, and how deeply we were immersed in bigoted language by virtue of our immediate environments, killing the reflexive call of bigoted language, even when we don't want it there, might require some effort. Socializing ourselves out of the shit with which we were indoctrinated is work. It doesn't happen by magic or mere will.

I was raised in a deeply racist culture that privileged my whiteness and offered me fewer positive images of people of color than stereotypical or straight-up negative ones. When I first took an implicit bias test centered around racial prejudice, it revealed there was shit lurking in me that needed to change. I made a conscious decision to resocialize myself, and I stepped outside the well-tread grooves of my socialization and resolved to remap my path so that I would encounter way more positive images of people of color than I would ensconced in my unexamined white privilege.

And that path of resistance never ends, because the white privilege-upholding culture in which I live never stops exhorting and enabling me to be fucking racist.

My implicit bias score has changed, but, more importantly, I have. I'm not sharing that to try to say I'm fixed (I'm not) or to pat myself on the back; to the contrary, it's fucking embarrassing I had to do that. I'm sharing it because it is important to address that practicing racism, actively or passively, is a decision that white people make. And so is not practicing racism.

But Deen will almost certainly be defended on the basis that it's somehow acceptable, or different, to engage in racism when you're angry or aggrieved. Because you don't really mean it. Because you can't help it. As if racism is not a choice.

Of course, that is not the only time Deen practiced or indulged racism:
Lawyer: Miss Deen, earlier in your testimony you indicated that one of the things that you had tried to — that you and your husband tried to teach your children was not to use the N word in a mean way; do you recall that testimony?

Deen: Yes.

Lawyer: Okay. And could you give me an example of how you have demonstrated for them a nice way to use the N word? ...Or a non-mean way?
Deen: We hear a lot of things in the kitchen. Things that they — that black people will say to each other. If we are relaying something that was said, a problem that we're discussing, that's not said in a mean way.

Lawyer: What about jokes, if somebody is telling a joke that's got —
Deen: It's just what they are, they're jokes.

Lawyer: Okay. Would you consider those to be using the N word in a mean way?
Deen: That's — that's kind of hard. Most — most jokes are about Jewish people, rednecks, black folks. Most jokes target — I don't know. I didn't make up the jokes, I don't know. I can't — I don't know.

Lawyer: Okay.
Deen: They usually target, though, a group. Gays or straights, black, redneck, you know, I just don't know — I just don't know what to say. I can't, myself, determine what offends another person.

Lawyer: Okay. Well —
Deen: I can feel out that person pretty good on what would offend them, but I'm not sure, Mr. Billips, what — what the question even means.

Lawyer: Well, if you were sitting around at home just with you and your family, would you feel any hesitation in telling a joke that you thought was funny if it had the N word in it?
Deen: I don't tell jokes, not at my house. That's —

Lawyer: Do the other members of your family tell jokes at home?
Deen: Yes.

Lawyer: Okay.
Deen: Yes.

Lawyer: And they told jokes using the N word?
Deen: I'm sure they have. My husband is constantly telling me jokes.

Lawyer: Okay. And have — are you offended at all by those jokes?
Deen: No, because it's my husband.
As long as it's your spouse telling them, it's fine! You know he doesn't mean any harm. With all those GAY OR STRAIGHT JOKES he's telling.

I don't know what else to say. I'm not surprised, because I am a white person who has been a white person her whole life (!) and thus I have spent a lifetime interacting with other white people who presumed that, because we are both white, we are both fans of racist humor. Or cool with racial slurs. Or will definitely agree about their solid and totally original theories on some ancient racist narrative. I know this shit goes on. I am not surprised by it, any more than I am ever surprised at human ignorance and privilege and harm, despite the plentiful alternative models.

I am not surprised, but I am angry. And I want to say: This is wrong.

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