“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.