Monday, July 1, 2013

"Oh Food Network I don't know nuthin' 'bout sexual and racial harrassment"

I've kinda held back about the whole Paula Deen debacle because many other eloquent blogging voices have done so already, pointing out the silliness of viewing her as the embodiment of Southern cuisine, when it could be argued that the most authentic Southern cooking is African-American cooking (similar to the claim that jazz is the only truly American music).

But there are a few points that have been bugging me and I MUST clarify....

1. The issue isn't that Deen used 'the n-word' once, thirty years ago, or even that she used it once three years ago.  All of these allegations came out in a legal deposition pertaining to harassment charges against her.  One of the legal definitions of harassment is that the employer created a hostile working environment for the discriminated-against person, such as consistently using offensive racial and/or sexual slurs.

2. It does seem clear that Deen did mention she wanted a 'Southern, plantation-style wedding' with an all-black staff.  And that indicates more than a simple 'recent slip of the tongue.' And that there are allegations of systematic and consistent racist language on a daily basis at her restaurant and other businesses, not just a smattering of accidental bad language.

It certainly isn't true that 'all white women of Deen's generation are racists from the South.'  That seems pretty offensive to Southern women who ARE NOT and also belies the fact that there are plenty of equally racist Northern women today who just happen to be racist about different types of groups they see as the servant class (don't even get me started on what I have overheard some people say about the women they hire to clean their houses and the men who mow their laws).  No one gets a 'free pass' as far as I am concerned for deep and systematic discrimination: being from the South doesn't make you racist but nor does it free you from the standards of common humanity and decency.

Credit: NPR
I'm probably not the best person to weigh in on this, though, because I have never understood the romanticism of the Old South.

Like most precocious junior high girls, I breezed through Gone With the Wind, picking it up because I heard it was a dirty book and then staying with it because of the opening chapter's description of Scarlett O'Hara as a heroine with no imagination who was cruel and callous, dark-haired and a survivor.

Most of my books featured very imaginative intelligent girls like Harriet the Spy and Ramona Quimby or bookish romantic heroines with inner beauty like Jane Eyre. Cathy from Wuthering Heights was as close as you could get to a heroine who was Byronic and 'mad, bad, and dangerous to know' but she dies halfway through the book and Heathcliff is the real hero.

In contrast, Scarlett is a total bitch and the center of her own universe, the type of girl who would never talk to me in real life.  She made mistakes, but she'd be far better off in today's world than I am. So she fascinated me, even as the obvious racism of the book was repellent.

It made me feel better years later to realize that as simple as the book is there is so much more complicated racial ideology behind the surface that Margaret Mitchell probably didn't intend but unconsciously slipped the fact that despite being technically white, Scarlett and Rhett Butler embody so many 'black' stereotypes, such as Rhett's swarthy complexion, sexuality, and dismissive view of the Southern cause and gentility....and if the annoying cinematic stereotype so many African-American actresses are forced to embody is that of a 'sassy black woman,' I would argue that is EXACTLY what Scarlett O'Hara is...sassy, mouthy, uncomplicated and earthy.

In contrast the truly 'lily white' characters in the book are Ashley and Melanie and significantly they are weak, passive, and ultimately death-driven and non-generative, in contrast to the sturdy Scarlett and her ability to give birth easily and without pain and kick ass while surviving the burning of Atlanta.

Perhaps that is why some African-American woman like the book, despite themselves.  I love this quote from an essay published on NPR: "Scarlett O'Hara, founding mother of the Me Generation. Frankly, my dear, I found her unabashed self-interest delicious. My own mother, though, was mystified. Why would her child, who would eventually sport a two-foot wide Afro, be so interested in a plantation belle?" Through literary slight-of-hand Scarlett allows the reader to have the strength of an African-American woman, in other words, with white Southern privilege.

Still, despite the positive characteristics of Scarlett, we as a society still seem very blind to how much racism bubbles beneath the surface of the idealization of the antebellum South, and despite Barack Obama's election, I still sometimes see 'stars and bars' on bumper stickers in my area and shudder.  Hell, the Dukes of Hazard was a popular TV show when I was a kid in the 1970s, if I remember correctly.

No matter how much I coveted the apple green dress wrapped around Scarlett's 17-inch waist, I knew what all of that cotton was made from: pain.

But in some sense, I guess we are hypocritical as a society to react with horror to Deen: the race issues bubbling beneath her manufactured persona were always there, we just didn't want to admit to much of our battles about things like food have a racial subtext and Paula's pride in deep-frying everything that moves, putting an extra half-stick of butter in everything, and using processed food galore to create her 'cuisine' smacked of a hatred of Northern elitism, kale, and judgement of her region for its past.

Yes, all of us have said things we might regret on a personal level and we are all reflections of our very imperfect history.

But ultimately, racial and sexual harassment within an organization, just like history and a great Civil War, doesn't happen by accident--it takes callousness and a considerable effort of will to maintain and the individual responsible for that organization can't shrug it off.

Frankly, my dear, from what I have heard about working in restaurant kitchens, pretty much all of them involve some form of chest-thumping and ass-grabbing, but at minimum this should not be condoned by management. They say a fish rots from the head down...and in this case the 'head' of the fish was batter-fried in butter and yes, I do give a damn if what was said, was said.


  1. I completely agree about the hypocrisy of the general reaction to Deen. It's the reaction, more than the allegations about her, that I find dubious. Her defenders and their laughably incomplete understanding of the First Amendment are offensive to be sure, as is Paula's seeming inability to understand why her explanations are only making things worse, but I'm also not really loving the people who are using this as an excuse to proclaim that they themselves are not racists. When something like this comes up, be it Paula Deen or Michael Richards or random internet troll, I think that there's a subset (not all, by any means) of politically liberal, socially progressive, middle-class, usually but not necessarily WASP, otherwise lovely reasonable people, who breathe a sigh of relief because it outlines this rule: saying the N-word is racist.

    Then it's Philosophy 101 logical fallacy time.

    People who say the N-word are racist.
    Paula Deen said the N-word.
    Therefore, Paula Deen is a racist.

    People who say the N-word are racist.
    I do not say the N-word.
    Therefore, I am not a racist. Yay! Let's go to Coachella!

    Of course, these are the same people who say they went to Target but couldn't find what they wanted because it was "the ghetto Target," or who refer to their Japanese lawyer as "the little Asian guy who drew up my will." And if you try to explain to them why saying that kind of thing (and you say this as gently as possible) could be construed as, "a little ... er, racial," they are mortally offended. How dare you! They never say the N-word! They never say Oriental unless they're talking about rugs! They follow Cory Booker on Twitter for God's sake! It's not that they don't understand that racism is more than just the N-word or burning crosses, but they get defensive when someone thinks that things they say and do might count too.

    I've been pushing the "come on, guys, we're ALL a little bit racist; let's admit it and then work on ourselves!" mantra since long before Avenue Q, and usually it leads to an argument, so now when the topic comes up, I mostly just nod and say, "yes, he/she/it is TERRIBLE, isn't he/she/it?" and then go on about my way. Because if I'm being honest, if the worst thing a person does is say things are "ghetto," while still managing to feel good about himself, it's not so bad. It annoys me because I'm easily annoyed, but that's more on me than them, I guess.

  2. I agree that because of the way our society has evolved it is impossible not to 'see' race, and therefore to some degree we are all 'racists' (even though race is actually a biological fiction). And yes, I totally agree that there are many 'flavors' of racism--many wealthy so-called progressives can ignore the issue of race simply because they live in such non-diverse areas.

  3. I haven't really made a comment on this either but I really was appalled at Deen's remarks and at the fact that she has pretty consistently made racist comments. Not that anyone should make them, but especially when you know you're going to be in the public eye, why not just hold your tongue?

  4. @Joanne--that is also another sad dimension to the story. Clearly, in her world, she felt it was still acceptable to treat people that way...repeatedly...and she felt she wouldn't be held accountable.