Paula Deen’s story was a marketer’s dream: a woman who battled panic attacks and agoraphobia decided to turn her handicaps into strengths by using her self-imposed exile in her own home to focus on cooking. Her husband left her with only $200 to her name, but fighting the odds, she became a successful businesswoman and media mogul.
Who doesn’t love an “against the odds” story like that?
The truth is, Americans only love such a story for a while. Once you become too big, then you need to be kicked in the teeth a few times, it seems, and social media reveals that there’s no shortage of people willing to line up to assist such a fall.
Deen’s claim that she used the “N-word” once — and only once — caused an amusing response from people who seem to consider themselves completely innocent of any kind of prejudice. And I’ve never yet met a single human being who was completely innocent of any kind of prejudice.
If we’re really honest, we know that whites sometimes say unkind things about blacks. Blacks sometimes say unkind things about whites. Straight people say unkind things about the LGBTQ community. And vice versa. Christians say unloving things about non-believers, and the reverse is unquestionably true. Literate people crack jokes about the illiterate, while the illiterate crack jokes about those they consider a little too well-read. The poor complain about the rich and the rich complain about the poor. Jews vs. gentiles. Nerds vs. geeks. Employees vs. bosses. Drivers vs. cyclists.
The list could go on for hours.
The fact is, nearly every conceivable group of people that considers itself somehow different from another group of people — even when the difference is as unimportant as hair color — will eventually begin cracking jokes or making derogatory remarks about the people who are different from them.
Once in a while — and a lot of people won’t admit this, either — members of different groups, after becoming close friends despite their differences, can crack certain kinds of jokes about each other’s groups to each other’s faces. Those jokes work within those circles because those people get to know each other and respect each other enough that they know what is and isn’t meant by such comments.
So when we see a clip of Deen talking lovingly about a valued member of her staff who happens to be black, and she jokes that she can barely see him because he’s so dark-skinned and standing in front of a dark background, that’s a joke that’s completely acceptable within their circle, but not so acceptable outside that circle.
Much the way that certain blacks like to use the “N-word” to describe each other, but cringe when a non-black person uses it. If Deen’s relationship with that staff member offends you because you aren’t in that circle, you cannot possibly justify the use of the “N-word” within certain other circles. It’s truly time we drop this preposterous notion that when “certain” people use the “N-word” about themselves, it somehow “reclaims” the word: if that would could be “reclaimed,” it’d have been reclaimed by now; the fact that it remains so offensive ought to settle that argument.
Of course, by the time Deen showed up on NBC’s Today for her tear-filled mea culpa, corporations already began cutting ties.
What I find so “offensive” about Deen’s deposition isn’t the fact that she admitted using the “N-word” in the past, but rather that she was reportedly so cavalier about it: when asked if she’d used that word, her response, we are told, was, “Yes, of course.”
It’s one thing to point out in a blog post, as I’ve done here, that everyone says less-than-kind things about someone at least once in a blue moon; but when you as an individual are asked about specific examples of bad things you’ve said, if you truly regret having said it, you’re not cavalier: you’re ashamed. Though we don’t yet have the benefit of seeing demeanor (assuming the deposition was videotaped), all we have is the transcript; “Yes, of course,” does not read like it’s coming from someone who is ashamed.
The disconnect here is that Deen’s shame seems to have come a bit too late in the overall scheme of things.
In the Trayvon Martin case, the “star” witness, a black female with whom Martin was on the phone when his path and that of George Zimmerman tragically crossed testified that Martin told her he was being watched by a “creepy-ass cracker.” She didn’t seem any more regretful about using that word or the fact that someone in her circle would use the word than we are led to believe Deen was when asked about her use of the “N-word.”
Many complained that we’re not as upset by that. Well of course we aren’t: neither Martin nor his friend have the media celebrity Deen has. If they had, there’d be more outrage.
What it does tell us, however, is that the name-calling, the inappropriate remarks about people who are different, goes in more than one direction.
It’s easy to point the finger at someone else when they make it so easy for us. But once in a while, as we point that finger, we ought to remember that in our own way, within our own circles, we’re guilty of similar offenses, too.
Deen tearfully told Matt Lauer that anyone who hasn’t ever said something they’d later come to regret should grab the biggest stone they can find and hit her hard enough to kill her.
I don’t see anyone rushing to pick up a stone.
That should tell us all something.