Cooking show host Paula Deen has come under fire for pushing a version of Southern cuisine that emphasized fat, salt, and sugar rather than health, and for becoming a spokeswoman for a pharmaceutical company that makes much of its profits from insulin after she was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, even though her core cooking business was arguably creating new customers for diabetes drugs. And this week, Deen found herself tipped from the frying pan into the fire this week after a deposition surfaced in which she discussed her use of the term “nigger” and discussing her vision for a “southern plantation-style wedding” that would feature black servers.
Deen was deposed as part of an employment discrimination case in which a former restaurant manager, Lisa Jackson, suggested that Deen said things like, “Well what I would really like is a bunch of little niggers to wear long-sleeve white shirts, black shorts and black bow ties, you know inthe Shirley Temple days, they used to tap dance around,” and that her remarks were part of a pervasive discriminatory environment.
Deen’s denied that she used that language colloquially, though she’s acknowledged that she might have used the term in a conversation with her husband after she was robbed at gunpoint in 1986. But what’s striking to me isn’t just that Deen, whose career is based on a kind of Southern nostalgia that has little relationship to actual history, might have mentally rewritten images like an all-black waitstaff serving white party attendants to be benign rather racially coded. Rather, what’s most-revealing is an attitude of resentment that comes out in both Jackson’s accusations and Deen’s deposition, the idea that people will prevent Deen from doing what she really wants because they’ll project racism onto her. In her deposition, there’s no sense that she maybe ought to be responsible for the perception of her actions, or think about other people’s feelings.
Jackson said, of Deen’s alleged remarks about the wedding, that Deen said that an event that used black waiters in shirts and ties “would be a true southern wedding, wouldn’t it? But we can’tdo that because the media would be on me about that.” And in Deen’s deposition, she acknowledged that “And I remember saying I would love to have servers like that, I said, but I would be afraid somebody would misinterpret.” When the lawyer deposing her asked if she meant the media, Deen said “Yes, or whomever — …- is so shallow that they would read something into it.” It’s a formulation based in grievance, the idea that Deen is innocent and other people are out to get her, and that absolves her of having to think about why, as the lawyer deposing her asked, “Is there any reason that you could not have done something just like that but with people of different races?…Is there any reason you couldn’t have found middle-aged professionalservers who were of different races?” If Deen had to answer that question, which her lawyers objected to, it would have been fascinating and revealing to see her try to justify some sort of aesthetic preference for an all-black waitstaff that wasn’t based in racial feeling.There’s a similar sense of resentment in an exchange Deen has with the lawyer deposing her about racial jokes. “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,” she says. “They usually target, though a group. Gays or straights, black, redneck, you know, I just don’t know. I can’t, myself, determine what offends another person.” It’s not just a tremendously narrow view of humor — there are, of course, tremendous numbers of jokes that aren’t about race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. It’s that Deen doesn’t seem to think she’s responsible for hurting a person by telling a joke that someone else made up, when of course she could always make a choice not to tell those jokes in the first place. And it’s that offense, in Deen’s mind, is something totally unpredictable and personal, rather than something she could reasonably anticipate if she thought about another person’s feelings and about the larger social context for more than thirty seconds.
This is a characteristic position of people who don’t want to confront the fact that their words and behavior might have caused someone else harm, or to think about the world as experienced by people other than themselves, or beyond their immediate environment. Racism is the fault of people who are wounded by it, not the people who put it out into the world. The racial implications of images only exist in the minds of those who see them, rather than the people who compose situations without considering how they might be read in the context of history and culture. Deen’s attitudes are harmful, but there’s something sad about the narrow little world she occupies, and how airless it will become as time moves on without her.