Skepticism

Paula and Rachel

“And I tell you what, if there’s anyone out there that has never said something that they wish they could take back, if you’re out there, please pick up that stone and throw it so hard at my head that it kills me. Please. I want to meet you. I want to meet you. I is what I is and I’m not changing.”

That’s the contradictory babble Paula Deen unleashed on Matt Lauer during her “apology” appearance on the Today Show.

“I think she comes across as brutally ignorant,” said attorney Jonna Spilbor on Fox News. But she wasn’t talking about Paula Deen, a grown-ass white woman who’s traveled the world and made millions of dollars putting butter in pans, yet thinks it’s okay to use the n-word (she was clearly missing this handy guide), host slavery-themed events, and court sympathy with poor grammar. Spilbor was talking about Rachel Jeantel, a teenager whose friend Trayvon Martin was brutally murdered last year and who is (shockingly, to some) not quite perfectly composed and eloquent in her testimony about his death.

Brutally ignorant. Those are harsh words. And they’re far better applied to Deen than to Jeantel. Deen is an adult who has actively courted the public eye. A professional who’s had many years and millions of dollars to travel the globe, learn new things, have big experiences, and get coaching in “proper” media interactions. Jeantel is young, untrained, probably fearful, and sure – probably ignorant about many things (as are we all). But to aggressively call her brutally ignorant is to participate in a type of public shaming that Deen is a much more appropriate target for.

Jeantel is a teenager in an emotional situation and getting a lot of pressure from a person who occupies a position of power and is associated with the man who killed her friend. Deen, on the other hand, is a person in a position of power who continues to remain willfully ignorant of why it might be a problem to use racial slurs or hold slavery-themed events. And, worse, nobody seems to care about her ignorance. About people who get frisked or lose jobs or worse every day because of racism. Heck, even the Supreme Court doesn’t think racism is important enough to bother about anymore. And yet Jeantel is getting slammed, while Deen gets off with some mild mockery and the loss of a few bucks.

“Nobody really got hurt, except Ms. Deen and her Southern-cooking empire,” wrote Alessandra Stanley, of Deen’s Today show appearance and the situation in general. But that’s absolutely not true. Everyone is hurt by a society where people don’t understand what’s racist and, even worse, what’s wrong about being racist. The very fact that we don’t think racist behavior “hurts” anyone (if we even think it exists) is exactly why Rachel Jeantel and not Paula Deen is being shamed. As Sherri Williams points out:

How many people in their late teens and early 20s do watch the news, especially young people of color? Part of the reason why they don’t watch the news is because they only see reflections of themselves that are stigmatized, mocked and ridiculed.

Not only that – these kids see reflections of white people that say it’s okay to be racist. It’s normal to be racist. Let’s hold hands and sing a fun song about how racist I am (but it’s cool, it’s just accidental and/or because I’m from the South)!

So these kids aren’t so ignorant after all. They get the message: as long as you have enough money, power, and/or whiteness, you can do whatever you want. When you’re a black kid in a hoodie, you can’t walk around in your neighborhood without getting shot. When you’re a black kid on the witness stand, you can’t throw around any slang or forget anything you ever said in the past. But when you’re a famous white person, you can plan yourself some goddamn slavery-themed weddings and not even acknowledge how fucked up that is.

As with many non-apologies, Deen’s combination of rich, fatty pseudo-regret, seasoned with bitter defiance, is so infuriating because it so deeply misses the point. The problem is not (just) that she may have said racist things, either yesterday or 25 years ago. The real problem is that she doesn’t understand what is racist about what she said, nor does she get why it’s wrong to be racist. And in trying to not-apologize for it, Deen even went so far as to blame racism on young people (presumably ones just like Jeantel and Martin), saying “these young people are going to have to take control and start showing respect for each other and not throwing that word at each other.”

No, Paula – this is about you. You are going to have to take control and start showing respect for people. You don’t get to be adorably or accidentally racist because you’re an old school Southerner! In fact, proud Southerners should want to do their region right and show that being from the South doesn’t have to involve slinging n-words along with your hush puppies. Maybe a simple checklist will help. Step one: name the issue as racism. Can you do even that?

On Conan recently, Bill Burr tossed out what seemed to be a (not very funny) fat joke but ended up becoming a (really very true) statement about Paula Deen’s net worth. As Burr points out, she’s a woman who can make someone – a network, a brand, whatever – many millions of dollars. Despite the recent controversy, that’s still valid. And Deen’s already hired a PR person. So give it a few months (Burr claims that Dog the Bounty Hunter was back on TV pursuing black folks just three months after dropping the n-word repeatedly). PR will muscle up, the controversy will blow over, and Paula Deen will be back to making buttery dishes and millions of dollars and no one will blink an eye.

Where will Rachel Jeantel be? She’ll still be without her close friend. She’ll be living with difficult memories of Martin’s death and her time on the stand. And she’ll be a black woman in America, judged and shamed every day by the same people who don’t think words like Paula Deen’s are a big deal. The people who are brutally ignorant of the negative effects of racism.

Image (of Paula Deen not eating her words, er, donuts) from Eater.

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Kerry is a longtime skeptic and technology enthusiast, currently in recovery from too many years spent working in enterprise software. She still believes in the power of technology to do good, when used judiciously. Find her on Twitter or Google+.

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5 Comments

  1. When Paula’s “n” word troubles first became public I had this glimmer of hope that she would come out and say something about growing up in a culture where racisms was not uncommon and that regrettably her exposure to this part of southern culture while growing up had resulted in some unfortunate notions and words bouncing around in her head which she has worked to rid herself of; and an apology for her egregious lapse and failing to reflect what she truly thinks. A little humility and mea culpa on Dean’s part could have resulted in a wonderful teaching moment for many middle age southerners. Instead we got defensiveness, hubris and an extra helping of gravy served up by the turkey.

  2. Dean’s brand looks like it has fallen and can’t get up.

    She might have got over the racism thing with the proper show of public contrition. Americans are suckers for forgiving celebs peddling comeback stories. Look what George W. Bush managed to make out of his alcoholism. But now that she is down there is the little matter of the fact that her food literally kills. Watching someone clown around frying cheescake is amusing as a novelty, but when you know that they have given themselves an incurable disease eating that food, its not quite so funny. And when the person trying to sell the amusing novelty excess has an unsavory racist past, its just not funny at all.

    So I think this is likely the last we are likely to see of Paula Deen.

    I can’t see the point of attacking Rachel unless the Zimmerman defense strategy is hoping the jury spend their weekends wearing pillowcases on their heads.

    1. It’s a mixed bag. Business is up at her restaurants, and her line of cruises just added another charter because of the influx of supportive customers.
      She was dropped by some of her sponsors, and lost her TV show (for now), but on the ground, people are flocking to patronize her establishments and show their support.

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