the downfall of the deen empire
i’ve been thinking about paula deen, and how she’s basically my grandmother, lingering racism and all. the shock surrounding the discovery that deen has used racial slurs in the past reminds me that most Americans, southern and non, continue to romanticize the history of the South. believing that paula deen is a southern grandmother without acknowledging the mentality of many white women in the 60s requires some cognitive dissonance. specifically it requires forgetting the relationship between white women and black southerners in the Jim Crow era. i don’t mean to characterize every woman in our nation’s past a racist, but rather to assert that paula deen’s image as a southern grandmother is inherently tied to the history of white women in the segregated South; it’s also tied to the history of southern food.
paula’s use of racial slurs is enough to get someone fired. look at don imus’s “nappy headed hos” debacle. it’s appropriate that she apologize, but i would appreciate it more if the general debate surrounding deen acknowledged that this apology does little to advance the conversation regarding race, food, and gender in the South (and the rest of the nation).
when reading the deposition, it struck me that most of the incidents reported concerned her brother, Bubba, and her husband, Michael. These men were responsible for using racial slurs and showing porn at work (in front of employees). paula’s reaction to this reality in the deposition is troubling, as she excuses and endorses this behavior from the men in her life. while deen can be blamed for reinforcing and accepting illegal workplace behavior, her public castigation fails to hold Bubba and Michael accountable for their actions. (of course he is named bubba). i find it potentially anti-feminist that these men should face little public scrutiny when they are responsible for the illegal activity for which paula is being sued. while deen is the celebrity and will inevitably receive more attention, this attention seems focused more on her past use of racist language than the treatment of her employees.
unfortunately the deposition also reinforces long held stereotypes that the South remains the backwards part of America. racism remains a southern problem, not a national problem, in this scandal. what does removing deen from the public sphere accomplish for society at large? it may function as a sort of purging process, a kind of belated apology for wrongs done to the black community on the part of white Americans. For minorities it provides an opportunity to assert the equality of their own identity, something much harder to accomplish in the public sphere in the 1960s. Her mistreated staff may see her firing as an appropriate punishment following their treatment on the job.
we should question the larger cultural implications of this deposition rather than focusing overtly on deen as an individual. the woman isn’t evil, she’s just an idiot. if i were controlling the food network i would fire her too, but that decision alone does little to change the history from which deen’s racist language arose and the implications of that history in 2013.