After abruptly cancelling a planned appearance on the Today show last Friday to answer allegations that she’d used racially charged language and created a hostile environment at one of her businesses, celebrity chef Paula Deen finally made an appearance with Matt Lauer on Wednesday morning to discuss the controversy swirling around her that’s seen her dropped by the Food Network and sponsor Smithfield.
Deen was tearful in discussing how the scandal has impacted her and her family and friends, but her answers to Lauer’s questions suggested more about her views on race and responsibility than she may have intended. These are the five most revealing moments of Deen and Lauer’s conversation:
1. She doesn’t think she has to change: Towards the end of the interview, Deen sounded a defiant note in what will probably become the soundbite of the conversation: “I is what I is and I’m not changing.” Because Deen is the subject of ongoing litigation, and because QVC is, as Lauer put it, “weighing their options,” she was probably never going to be in a position to actually admit wrongdoing or even apologize in vague terms that could be construed as an admission of guilt. But declaring that “I’m not changing” is precisely the opposite of what most celebrities do in public apologies, where they often acknowledge that they have a lot to learn, and announce the partners with which they’ll try to educate themselves. Instead, it’s a canny marketing move, assuring hard-core fans that Deen won’t compromise the values or the persona that made her popular in the first place. But it probably won’t shut down the campaign to see her dropped by sponsors. And it certainly wont’ get her out of the claims against her, especially because Lisa Jackson, the employee who sued Deen in the first place, is considering suing Deen’s sons for slander because they suggested she was trying to extort Deen in an interview on CNN on Tuesday.
2. She doesn’t understand why African-Americans can use language white people can’t: Lauer brought up the section of Deen’s deposition where, when asked about racial and ethnic jokes, Deen said ” I can’t, myself, determine what offends another person.” “That last sentence gets me,” Lauer tells her. “Do you have any doubt in your mind that african americans are offended by the “n” word?” Deen’s response is telling. “I don’t know, Matt,” she says. “I have asked myself that so many times because it’s very distressing for me to go into my kitchen and I hear what these young people are calling each other. It’s very, very distressful.” If Deen doesn’t understand that different words have different connotations when used by different speakers, that suggests an unwillingness to think critically about race, power, and historical context. This is a frequent strawman offered up by people who have spoken in racially insensitive ways. But that frequency doesn’t make it any less a missing of the point.
3. She thinks Jesse Jackson is supporting her. He’s actually investigating her: “I’ve had wonderful support from Reverend Jackson,” Deen told Lauer during their conversation. If that reference Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. was meant to prove that Deen has prominent black supporters, she might want to think again. In reality Janice Mathis, who’s the president of Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, said last week that the organization ““will take a closer look at Paula Deen’s company to determine whether the allegations are credible, and if so, do they constitute a widespread pattern or practice of illegal exclusion. It may also be relevant to determine whether the company has any state or federal contracts. We are not making any assumptions about these very serious charges, but we are investigating and will report our findings publicly.” It may be in Deen’s interest to cooperate fully with them. But the organization has hardly given her a clean bill of health yet.
4. She uses language suggesting that being gay is a choice: The Deen controversy has focused on ideological fault-lines around race, particularly around whether nostalgia for the aesthetics of the pre-Civil War South constitutes racial bias–Deen came under fire for fantasizing about a wedding where black waiters would serve white guests, and grousing that the media would tar the event as racist, even though she couldn’t, or wouldn’t explain why the waiters had to be African-American for the image to land. But since she began apologizing, Deen’s language has revealed some other ideas that are decidedly uncomfortable. She referred to “sexual preference,” rather than sexual orientation in her initial apology. And with Lauer, Deen said “I believe that every creature on this earth, everyone of god’s creatures was created equal no matter who you choose to go to bed at night with. No matter what church you go to pray.” It wasn’t just that race was notably absent from her list of things that could make people different but equal, but that Deen’s words suggested that she believes sexual orientation is a choice. That may be another one of the ideas from a different time that her supporters are willing to overlook. But it’s an idea that’s had real consequences for gay people who have been told that they are fixable, and whose relationships have been criminalized, all in living memory.
5. She sees herself as a martyr: “There’s someone evil out there that saw what i had worked for and they wanted it,” Deen told Lauer towards the end of their conversation. That use of the word “evil” is striking in it intensity and suggestion of some sort of larger conspiracy to get Deen. And it’s an attempt to change the conversation, and to mark Deen’s accusers as jealous of her success, or not deserving of either compensation if she fostered a discriminatory workplace, or back pay if the wage theft allegations against her are found to be true. Deen has all the interest in the world in flipping the script, whether she’s describing comforting sobbing friends or alleging a dark plan to bring her down. But however effective tactics like those may have been in the past, it may be too late for Deen to change the story.