US celebrity chef Paula Deen is no stranger to controversy, but last week, the furore she caused may have marked the start of a downward career slide as information surfaced from a deposition revealing that she’d used a racial slur (n*r) and had created a hostile working environment for people of colour. The deposition was related to an employment discrimination suit brought by Lisa Jackson, a former restaurant manager once under Deen’s employ.
The US media, and population, instantly became obsessed with the ‘slip,’ in which Deen was caught telling an attorney that she’d used ‘the word’ before; her attorney, of course, rushed to assure the public that Deen didn’t condone the use of racial slurs. He went on to bring up a familiar argument used to excuse casual racism, that Deen had lived ‘in a different time’ and thus must be given some slack when it comes to racism.
Commentary has been furious around the Deen case, and several important threads about the United States, whiteness, and racism are worth picking out, especially in the wake of the Food Network’s decision to drop Deen’s show to wash its hands of the controversy. Once dropped by the network, Deen suddenly had defenders crawling out of the woodwork to protect her from the evils of the ‘PC police,’ which evidently patrol the streets of the US with batons, waiting eagerly for their next victims.
Much of the commentary has fixated on whether or not Deen really did use a racial slur, when she used it, and if it’s ‘that bad.’ The particular slur she herself admitted she used in a legal deposition (the penalties for perjury are high, and those penalties include lying on depositions—if she says she used it, she used it) has an extremely loaded role in US history and culture, and is widely regarded by many in the US as the worst possible slur imaginable. Many whites refuse to say or spell it out, even in critical discussions, due to how loaded it is, and it continues to be used abusively throughout US culture.
At the same time, Black US culture has engaged in a culture of reclamation, to take the word back for themselves and use it in a way designed to empower them, rather then reinforcing the lengthy and gross history of the word. Thus, it shows up in works of Black art and culture, including those consumed by whites, which at times creates cultural tensions. Some whites, for example, feel that they’re entitled to use the word, arguing that it’s ‘just a word’ and they won’t want to give it any power, not understanding the complexities of reclamation and autonomy.
Yet, this case ultimately isn’t about whether or not Deen used a racial slur. That’s only one aspect of a larger story that’s actually much more horrific, because what Jackson talks about in her depositions is a culture of racialised harassment and abuse, including Deen’s proposal for a ‘plantation-themed’ wedding. For the event, she suggested that all the servers could be Black men, says Jackson, who claims Deen said: ‘Well what I would really like is a bunch of little [n*rs] to wear long-sleeve white shirts, black shorts and black bow ties, you know in the Shirley Temple days, they used to tap dance around.’
Other statements from her depositions suggest a deep-seated vein of racism in Deen, which isn’t about the age she grew up in or her regional origins, much though people in the US like to pretend that racism is a white Southern problem seen primarily in older women. It’s a national problem, and one that Deen exemplifies, with her entire brand built up around a fictional version of ‘Southern living’ that ultimately includes very racist roots. The mythologised Southern plantation life that Deen represents was supported by slavery, and wouldn’t have been functional without slaves—the continued idolisation of that kind of life is a reflection of racist attitudes in the US.
Across the US, an expressed longing for ‘the good old days’ is a common theme, from the national obsession with Mad Men to nostalgic soda packaging. What isn’t admitted in this wave of national remembering is what went along with these days: rampant racism, exclusion, and prejudice practiced openly in a nation that ultimately exploded with the civil rights movement. And while the movement may have inspired legislation pushing for equality, it didn’t destroy racism—it just drove it underground.
Deen’s words speak to a larger issue. Alyssa Rosenberg at Think Progress noted that there’s a tone of resentment in some parts of the deposition, where Deen seems frustrated that she’s not ‘allowed’ to realise her full artistic genius because ‘some people’ might take her the wrong way; that she can’t tell racialised jokes, for example, or have a wedding with all-Black servers, because while she of course means well, outsiders will mistake her actions. Her attitudes about outsiders are reflective of larger cultural attitudes in the US, where many white people would prefer to remain secure and comfortable in their racism, without interference from people who hold them accountable for their actions.
The Deen case wasn’t about some poor genteel Southern lady being hounded through the media for maybe possibly saying a bad word. It was about a defense of whiteness in the US, and an eager closing of the ranks to ensure that white cultural dominance could remain unchallenged. Deen’s dismissal from her post at the Food Network was a warning knell that media taste-makers and producers are starting to become wary of what they think of as tainted talent, and that exposes of racism are tainting.
Darkly, though, another current runs beneath the Paula Deen conversation, one that hasn’t been as openly expressed. As whites wring their hands and talk about how one ‘doesn’t do that,’ the ‘that’ specified is actually unclear. Do they mean ‘be racist,’ or ‘be racist where someone can catch you at it’? Because the answer to this question is often unsettlingly the latter; in the US, where racism and other prejudices are insidious and well-established, people are taught from a young age to keep up appearances before actually cleaning house. ‘Polite’ people are taught to avoid and condemn overt expressions of racism, while turning the other cheek in the face of more subtle racist acts.
Thus, the racism is swept under the bed where no one can see it, but not actually removed. In Deen’s case, someone lifted up the mattress and everyone gasped in collective horror, but their gasps concealed their own deep unease about what was hiding under their own beds.