When the news first broke that former Food Network star Paula Deen was defending herself in court against allegations that she’d used the word “nigger” and fantasized about a plantation wedding that would employ an all-black waitstaff to serve white guests, one of the things I was struck by in her deposition was Deen’s sense that she was the real victim. She suggested that the media would misinterpret her plans for the wedding. She said she couldn’t possibly know what kinds of racial humor might offend people who were the target of it. It was a series of statements that suggested that Deen felt she had a right to be read in the most charitable light possible — but absolutely no responsibility to think about the feelings of others, or to consider how her words and actions might reasonably be interpreted.
That air of victimization hung over an interview her adult sons Bobby and Jamie Deen gave to CNN’s Chris Cuomo this morning. Bobby Deen explained that growing up, he had worshipped the baseball player Hank Aaron, and that his parents had not only encouraged his enthusiasm, but discussed racial barriers Aaron had faced to play in the major leagues.
“The important thing is for people to know that is not her heart. it is certainly not the home that we were raised in. we were raised in a family with love and of faith and i house where god lived and neither one of our parents ever taught us to be bigoted towards any other person for any reason,” he said “And this is so saddening to me because our mother is one of the most compassionate, good-hearted empathetic people that you’d ever meet and these accusations are very hurtful to her and it’s very sad and frankly i’m disgusted by the entire thing because it began as extortion and it’s become character assassination and our mother is not the picture of this being painted of her.”
It’s a statement that’s worth parsing on a number of levels, because it’s an example of two of the four most common arguments people who are defending themselves against allegations of racism use to try to change the conversation.
First, there’s the idea that the Deen family home was a kind of paradise of godliness and tolerance. All of which is all well and good for Jamie and Bobby, but the people Paula Deen employed weren’t her children, didn’t grow up in her home, and weren’t receiving the lectures about American racism and the Hank Aaron pajamas Bobby apparently got from his mother. Private decency doesn’t inoculate people from public bad acts. And the faces parents show their children may be their best selves in a way that the ones they wear in anger or in financial dealings are not. Being good to your son doesn’t prevent you from, as Deen is now also alleged to have done, from requiring the employees in your business to work at private functions in your home and compensating them in alcohol rather than with money. Suggesting that there is some sort of moral consistency to people’s lives is a common defense, but it’s an utterly specious one.Second, Bobby uses another argument common to people who have been accused of using racially hurtful language, racist imagery, or practicing disparate treatment of their employees. He tries to turn the tables and suggest that the hurt to his mother from these allegations is worse than employees who had to hear her use the term “nigger,” or as Sheldon J. Ervin, the employee who says he was paid in beer and was fired for speaking up, alleges, lost wages they were entitled to because Deen was too cheap to pay them. This is a frequent rhetorical shift, and it’s a nastily effective one. If suggesting someone used racist language, or espoused a racially biased idea, much less that they are a racist through and through is the most explosive thing you can do in American society, the penalties for making those allegations become very, very high, and people who make them have to be prepared to be dragged through the mud. It’s a framework that reverses the polarity of the conversation: the person who may have used the word “nigger” in a professional setting is now entitled to more consideration of her feelings than the person who might have been hurt by her speech, or who might have experienced wage theft at her hands.
The third argument people in Deen’s position often use shows up in an argument Jamie Deen advanced in his interview with Cuomo, one that’s similar to his mother’s protestations that she can’t be responsible for anyone else’s feelings, and that anyone who would read malice into Deen’s actions is somehow deluded. “This is ridiculous, completely absurd to think there is an environment of racism in our business and it’s really disrespectful to the people we work with,” he told Cuomo. “We have strong educated men and women of character that have been with us for 5, 10, 15, 20 years, to think they would allow themselves to be in this position is simply baloney. It’s ridiculous.” The idea that people can just easily speak up against or exit a situation in which they’re being treated unfairly or made to feel uncomfortable is a common one, and it’s patently absurd, ignoring the fear of retaliation or job loss that, if Ervin’s allegations that Deen fired him for speaking out about wage theft are vindicated, seem rather concrete, and that could be particularly hard to recover from in a bad economy. But even more important here is Jamie’s insistence that if he saw no racism, it can’t possibly have existed, and any suggestions of a racist environment, imagery, or behavior, are just fever dreams. This is a real attempt to stigmatize as crazy and aggrieved anyone who sees or experiences racism in a society that’s supposed to be free of it. It’s awfully convenient to work backwards and say that because racism is supposed to be over in America that Paula Deen can’t possibly have behaved in a way that demonstrated racial bias. But that’s a more fantastical construction than the suggestion that a woman who’s built a business on Southern nostalgia might have lingering racial attitudes from that period, too.
And there’s a fourth fall-back. Deen’s sons appeared to acknowledge that, as some of her defenders have, suggesting that she’s from “a different time,” as if the divide between Deen’s generation and our own is clear and clean, and as if attitudes influenced by the past can’t have an impact on people living in this supposed brave new present. Jonathan Blanks, a researcher based in DC, called out a section of Deen’s memoir in which she says she “hardly noticed” the Civil Rights movement and the ugly, violent reaction against it, as if that’s some sort of sign of colorblindness. “This willful ignorance about what the South was, what it stood for, and the direct role its people played in the oppression of so many, is the most infuriating thing about their repugnant, beloved ‘heritage,’” Blanks writes.
I can see why Deen and her sons would like to live in a world where their intentions always get the benefit of the doubt, where people who call them out on their actions get treated like they’re crazy grievance-mongers, where everyone recognizes that the press just reads ill will into things like plantation-style weddings. It’s an environment that would allow them to live comfortably anaesthetized, free from having to think about how their words and actions might affect others. But contrary to Bobby and Jamie’s constant assertions that their mother is a good person, this is not what good, truly anti-racist people do. They think before they speak and act about how their behavior might come across to other people, and they weigh historical context as well as their own intent in doing so. They don’t expect or demand the most charitable interpretation of their words, and when they’re accused of hurtful speech or bad acts, they can look past their own discomfort at the allegation and try to weigh it fairly, see if there’s something to learn. This is painful. It’s hard. But it’s also far more right than insisting that the real racists are out to get you.