Dora Charles worked for Paula Deen for 22 years. By all accounts, she was integral to Deen's success.
She helped open the Lady & Sons, the restaurant [in Georgia] that made Ms. Deen's career. She developed recipes, trained other cooks and made sure everything down to the collard greens tasted right.Deen called Charles, a black woman, her "soul sister," and once promised Charles that they'd both get rich together. Instead, Deen paid Charles "less than $10 an hour, even after Ms. Deen became a Food Network star," and only after Charles, along with three other employees, filed a discrimination suit with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was her salary raised to $71,000, which Jamie Deen, Paula's son, incredibly claims was not connected to the EEOC suit.
"If it's a Southern dish," Ms. Deen once said, "you better not put it out unless it passes this woman's tongue."
Charles loved Deen. That much is clear. Once upon a time, at least, they had a friendship Charles valued. Deen betrayed that friendship, in addition to treating her employee like shit.
And there were tough moments. She said Ms. Deen used racial slurs. Once she wanted Mrs. Charles to ring a dinner bell in front of the restaurant, hollering for people to come and get it.Deen found another black female employee to do it instead, and sells pictures of her on a postcard in her shops.
"I said, 'I'm not ringing no bell,'" Mrs. Charles said. "That's a symbol to me of what we used to do back in the day."
Dora Charles' story is heartbreaking, precisely because she was a partner to someone who did not treat her like one. An erstwhile friend who used and exploited her. Because she could.
It's pretty amazing that the national conversation around Paula Deen, which started with an employment discrimination suit, has centered around whether she's racist for using a slur, while this is how she treated a black friend and employee.
The Times article says: "The relationship between Mrs. Charles and Ms. Deen is a complex one, laced with history and deep affection, whose roots can be traced back to the antebellum South. Depending on whether Mrs. Charles or Ms. Deen tells the story, it illustrates lives of racial inequity or benevolence." As if the sort of "benevolence" shown by Deen is not itself indicative of racial inequity.
Benevolence that fulfills some kind of savior complex for a privileged person isn't kindness. Kindness is a thing that happens between equals. And someone who views another person as her equal doesn't exploit them.
Funny, isn't it, how working for less than $10 for decades to help a friend amass a fortune isn't considered the act of "benevolence."
[H/T to @JanvierNoir.]