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Paula Deen’s South Begs a Question: What’s Wrong With Us?

| June 23, 2013

Bubba's kind of wedding: from the March 1892 issue of Century Magazine. (New York Public Library Collection)

Bubba’s kind of wedding: from the March 1892 issue of Century Magazine. (New York Public Library Collection)

A few weeks ago I was interviewed by a reporter from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation about a column I had written on race and the George Zimmerman trial. The CBC was preparing for daily coverage of the trial, which tells you something about the level of interest in the shooting well beyond Florida. I answered the reporter’s questions about the column and, as he was wrapping up, he threw a zinger at me: “What is wrong with you people down here?”

I was taken aback, and not only because I found it presumptuous of a Canadian to paint 300 million of his neighbors with the same brush. My halting answer (which was not used in the CBC segment) was something to the effect that, after all, we do have a black man in the White House, but, yes, there are still too many Americans who refuse to accept equality of the races.

I was reminded of the reporter’s question by the hubbub over Paula Deen. I’m not much for either cooking or cooking shows, so before she became a news headline this week I didn’t know a lot about the lady. But I was curious enough that I read her deposition in the discrimination case filed against her, her brother and several of her corporations by a former employee. (See the full deposition below.) I now know a lot about Ms. Deen, and it’s not just meat loaf and buttermilk biscuits.

I found out that she has worked hard to build a restaurant business from scratch, publish cookbooks of high-calorie recipes, and stake her brother Bubba to his own eponymous restaurant. Good for her: an entrepreneur with a good idea and a lot of drive. I also learned that she admits to having used the word “nigger”—but only, she says, under certain circumstances, like when telling her husband about the man who held her up at gunpoint some years ago, and, in any case, “it was a very long time ago.”

I also found out that her idea of a dream wedding for Bubba—who has also been accused of using racial slurs at work and showing pornography to his employees—was a “really southern plantation” event with guests being served their food and drink by middle-aged black men in dinner jackets and bowties. Apparently, Ms. Deen’s nostalgia for the Old South extends beyond chicken and dumplings.

The Food Network quickly dropped Deen from its program lineup, in spite of two, painful-to-watch You Tube apologies (here, here and here). Deen’s fans, it was reported, were flocking to her Savannah, Ga., restaurant, The Lady & Sons, to show her their support—proving only that it is easier to photograph people who show up than those who don’t.

To its credit, The Savannah Morning News provided some balance by pointing out that the plaintiff in the Deen lawsuit had testified in a deposition that she had never heard Deen utter a racial insult. The paper also reminded its readers that it had reported on the lawsuit more than a year ago, and described how the lawyers in the case were turning it into a circus. Those were useful bits of information.


But, back to the CBC reporter’s question: What is wrong with us? The answer is far more complex than either Deen’s sniffling apologies or the Food Network’s peremptory firing would make it appear. The issue is not only whether Deen has sincerely evolved in her attitudes, but also whether the country has. Frankly, I am willing to cut Deen more slack here than I would give those rallying to her defense.

Certainly, as an entrepreneur Deen would understand that racism is not good business, and she cannot be, in 2013, the Paula of the 1950s or ’60s. But what’s the excuse for those haranguing the Food Network on Facebook? Who and what are they protecting? Sadly, I think that by defending Paula Deen they are revealing their dogged attachment to an era that is gone, but whose attitudes toward black people are still very much alive. They don’t have TV shows and businesses to protect. They are the people who still use the word “nigger” because no one they know will object.

In her deposition Deen said of the n-word, “But that’s just not a word we use as time has gone on. Things have changed since the ’60s in the South. And my children and my brother object to that word being used in any cruel or mean behavior.”

It’s a shame that Deen qualified her response. If she had said that her family objects to the use of the word anytime, anywhere and for any reason, she might be easier to defend. But Deen’s clumsy statements have become a rallying cry for too many people. So, what is wrong with us?

Steve Robinson moved to Flagler County after a 30-year career in New York and Atlanta in print, TV and the Web. Reach him by email here.

Paula Deen Deposition

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26 Responses for “Paula Deen’s South Begs a Question: What’s Wrong With Us?”

  1. Ella says:

    The use of the word, especially in the south is prevalent in certain generations who grew up with segregation. If you talk to older, white folks in the 70-90 year old group they still use it. Not meant in a mean way but it is what they grew up with.
    The word is used today in rap music (which I do listen to) on a regular basis by African Americans.
    This is being blown way out of proportion.
    The real issue is to teach future generations that it is unacceptable to label any group of people.

  2. Magnolia says:

    A rallying cry? Not likely. Unless you are ready to name names, Mr. Robinson, this is nothing more than a smear piece. For what purpose?

    Thou art not holier than the rest of us. We all find it abhorrent. What’s wrong with us? Possibly a lack of sensitivity or no respect for our fellow man, be they black, white, pink or purple. The Food network took the appropriate action.

    However, never before has racism been so alive and well as in the pages of the media. If we disagree, we are “racist”.

  3. Outsider says:

    I too object to the use of the “n” word, and I was at a loss at how to respond to my daughter’s question as to what it meant the first time she heard it. It was at the Wendy’s on Palm Coast Parkway some years back when two black teens were calling each other “my n—a” across the parking lot. So yes, what IS wrong with some people?

  4. NortonSmitty says:

    If you look at the hypertension stats, I find it very ironic that Paula Deen recipes have killed more Black folks than Klan ropes, but we are going to crucify her for being too honest in a deposition.

  5. Howard Duley says:

    I have no idea what’s wrong with Paula Dean but I for one am sick and tired of turning on my TV and finding that the vast majority of violent crime in Florida and a lot of other states is committed by you know who. My wife and I don’t even feel safe in this town of Palm Coast. The police can’t be every where and even if they could I don’t have any faith in their ability after reading all the problems concerning the department. You sure as hell don’t get any confidence unless you are packing a piece yourself. George Zimmerman has been thrown to the wolves by the state government to keep the blacks from burning Sanford to the ground. The state has no courage to call out the national guard if they did.

  6. Bubba says:

    What a RACIST article ! Just want to start trouble as usual. You need an attitude adjustment !!!

  7. ANONYMOUSAY says:

    Before the comments echo race card, Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, Trayvon Martin, Obama, OJ and whatever other black people that won’t be silenced, let it be known the woman who is bringing this lawsuit is WHITE. http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/entertainment/2012/03/paula-deens-lawyer-fights-sexual-harassment-lawsuit/

  8. RG says:

    It appears that Paula’s recipies just got spicier than some in the general public are willing swallow. Of course the media again is driving the public to come to conclusions without hearing the whole story. I think we all agree that racism is unacceptable. But why are certain people singled out and pubicly humiliated beyond reason. Yes she may of said what she said she said. This is turned into a media circus and every defender of
    the race she insulted shall and must vocalize how behind our generation is in accepting thier race. And every time they do i feel they just insult the rest of the country. Talk about over kill we get it. im surprised Sharpten
    hasn’t showed up on on the food network yet to protest. Oh thats right she got canned so he wont have to.

  9. Concerned says:

    That is the question, isn’t it. Sigh…

  10. anonymous says:

    Gotta say, never been called a N***** by anyone Southern while living here, but got my fair share of being called that living on Long Island. As a matter of fact the time I was called that here it was by a person from Long Island who is now in prison for pushing pills. That’s the go – to insult or word when a person can’t find another way to elevate themselves above the one they’re calling it.

  11. fla native says:

    What’s wrong with us? I think the question is what’s wrong with Paula Deen? She doesn’t speak for me.

  12. Magnolia says:

    There is nothing wrong with US; there is something wrong with HER. We all find this abhorrent. The Food Network took the appropriate action.

    A few bad apples does NOT make us a nation of racists.

  13. eck says:

    Perhaps CBC can assure us that French Canada will not separate from English Canada

  14. Ayn Rand's Spleen says:

    What’s wrong with us is that with civil rights, the powers that be implemented a large number of reforms that are supposed to “equalize” the playing field for minorities without acknowledging the fact that the ultimate goal is equality, not favortism.

    “We” forgot that you can’t just “give equal rights” to a community that’s experienced systematic discrimination without some forethought as to how they are going to get the same opportunities that everyone else has. “We” forgot about education and support that would help them to lift themselves (with help) up out of ignorance and poverty, instead “we” just offered them better loans and quotas that did nothing but put them into debt that literally can’t be forgiven and perpetuated feelings of resentment.

    It is established scientific fact that people born into poverty generally stay in poverty, not because of lack of opportunity but because the developing child’s mind literally changes to adapt to stress, becoming more impulsive and less logical, e.g. Haiti, the Congo, ghettos. Bootstraps doesn’t work, GOP and dems. You have to make fundamental changes.

  15. DLF says:

    The question “what is wrong with you people down there.” Is answered with,
    freedom of speech. I don’t use the word nigger, I must confess I do not like to hear the word . The problem I have is someone telling me I cannot use this word or any other of the growing list of words that are not PC. I for one feel the freedom of speech must be protected, at any cost. If you choose to use the word nigger you must be wiling to pay the price,but not with your freedom. Pauline Dean is now doing that, but she must never give up her right to use it

  16. brian says:

    she is not a racist, just a good ole gal..no problems here!!

  17. JL says:

    It’s not what’s wrong with us, but with the news media. This is utterly ridiculous how this has been blown out of proportion. Let ye who is without sin, cast the first stone. Tell me anyone in this U.S. who hasn’t at some point in time, said something derogatory about someone else. Whether it’s their race, creed, sexual preference. We have ALL done it at one point in time. She admitted it. Look at her age. Of course she did. Would you rather she lied? There is a black Pastor in Savannah who was interviewed and he said NO WAY is she racist. She has done more for black people in the south than most blacks with money have. She is a good person, not perfect, but none of us are. Look how many people are wealthy and do nothing to help others. She gives of her money and time to so many charities. So why don’t you people who are so quick to judge, look at yourselves in the mirror first. And then, get all of your facts and learn a little about Paula Deen. Don’t just judge her because of a few lines that came from a deposition transcript. Go to Savannah, and talk to the people and see what she does for them. Talk to the poor, and the minorities. See how she gives to them daily. No, you don’t want to see that. You want to quickly judge a white woman because that’s easy for you.
    Well, I know a lot about Paula Deen and I respect her, both before this came and out, and even more so now after. She’s an honest, hard working, faithful, loving person. And this is all blown out of proportion.
    I am joining with the thousands who have told Food Network, we are boycotting them. And we have also told QVC we will do the same if they ban her as well.
    A bad apple? Really? So you’re so perfect?? You have never said one bad thing or comment about anyone ever? I doubt that. So would you like that one time to be blown up and ruin your career over it? You people get me. I will admit, I’ve called people names before, in my past. It’s so much easier to do when we’re young and ignorant. Is it worth having your career ruined? Everyone has their prejudices, of some sort.
    But you people want to crucify Paula Deen because she admitted something from her past? She has attoned for her wrong doings by all the good that she has done since.

  18. Leroy says:

    Chris Rock uses word nigger all the time on national TV. And NOBODY demands he gets fired or “harassed” . I’m sick of this double standard crap. I’ll use any damn word I want to..Its my FREEDOM of SPEECH !!

  19. Seminole Pride says:

    Paula Deen, a women raised in the South to say she has used the “n” word is likeable because of her upbringing and age, and to be punished, is pushing the envelop a little to far. When you hear it all the time on rap music, in movies, and in society by the blacks in speaking to another black. But when used by a white person it is looked upon as racist. What about when someone calls me a “cracker” because I was born and raised in Florida, and the South, do I feel this is racist ? Of course not. I’m proud of who I am.

  20. Nancy N. says:

    Everyone is so hyperfocused on the lightning rod of the word she admitted to using that I think people are overlooking the much more telling and offensive thing about her attitudes – her admitted plans for the plantation theme for the wedding she was planning “with the older black gentlemen serving”.

  21. Sherry Epley says:

    Right on Nancy! This goes much deeper than one politically incorrect word. Ms Deen worked very hard to put herself in the public fish bowl. She wanted the fame, she wanted the money. The trouble is, she did not want to change her recipes to make them healthier, just like she did not want to even try to hide her prejudice. She is completely out of touch with those who choose healthier bodies and healthier ways of being in our society. Let her chips fall where they may.

    Judging by the “defensive” comments here, I would say the article has a very relevent point about how Ms Deen’s words and actions reflect a certain faction of our Southern culture and community. There are certainly people in our community who jokingly call friends/family “red neck” or “cracker” . . . but God forbid a stranger does the same. Those joking circumstances and comments between friends/associates do not create an excuse for “others” to use unacceptable terms about any human beings.

  22. pciservice@netzero.net says:

    This will blow over…..she can enjoy her millions and bide her time. She’ll be just fine…she just didn’t get her contract renewed….Fox News will probably give her a cooking segment on Fox and Friends now.

  23. NortonSmitty says:

    You know, it’s hard to defend against using the N word if you’re white when blacks do it to each other all the time. The only thing I can compare it to is that if another white guy calls you a Needle-Dicked Bug-Fucker, you probably take it as a joke. If a Black guy says it, it might piss you off because you might think he’s serious. As well as right.

    That’s about all I got to contribute to this discussion. You’re welcome.

    G’nite.

  24. boomer says:

    She used the “n’ word…..Thirty damn years ago. What better reason to ask what’s wrong with us.

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