Monday, June 24, 2013

Thoughts on the N Word and Paula Deen

I hate to admit it, but until a day or two ago, I'd never heard of Savannah, Georgia's own Paula Deen. Her biggish, frost-colored hair, lacquered face and phony smile, though, did look strangely familiar -- and just straight-up strange -- when I saw it above online headline after online headline that wondered if her career as a celebrity cook could be saved.

Having moved from the Virgin Islands to Florida at age 4 and living there until I graduated from the University of Florida at age 22, I spent 18 years of my life surrounded by hair, faces and smiles just like hers, and they were recurring nightmares after I moved to New York City, too. I'm pretty sure that in recent years I saw Deen's, too, maybe while I was channel surfing and landed on some cooking show for a second or two. But I don't do cooking shows, so I never stuck around for long.

Though unfamiliar with Deen herself, I can't say the same about her racist streak. It's all too familiar to my ears. During a deposition for a lawsuit filed by a former Deen employee claiming sexual and racial harassment against Deen and her brother Bubba Hiers (and doesn't that name say it all?), when asked if she'd ever used the N word, a simple "yes" or "no" wouldn't do. "Yes, of course," Deen flippantly responded as if she were merely admitting to cooking with honey, pretty much sealing the fate of her already-crumbling reputation. (She then went on to explain and excuse herself by telling the story of a black bank robber who pulled a gun on her and got the slur he deserved when she later recounted the tale to her husband.)

Well, yes, of course.

I wasn't surprised. Look at her. She has that same Southern-fried aura that I hear characterizes her food. I spent many years looking women who looked just like her dead in the face as they hurled that epithet in my direction -- or in another direction when they figured I wasn't looking, or listening. It's no big shock. I've heard it all. When I lived in Buenos Aires, on at least two occasions, I was called a "nigger" by guys who went from lusting to loathing in the space of five seconds after being rejected by me.

The first time it happened, I posed a question to my Facebook friends in which I asked who among them has ever used -- or thought -- the N word. One of the first responses was from a former classmate who said, "Let's face it; you know people are going to lie about this answer!!! I, on the other hand, have said it! And  no, it is not because I am prejudiced. I haven't ever directly said to someone's face either, but whoever was with me at the time has heard it come out of my mouth."

I admired her public honesty. I believe she was the only one with the guts to admit it. That doesn't make it right. And I'm still not sure if thinking "nigger" is as bad as saying it. I'd generally say that we're not responsible for the unspoken thoughts that pop into our head, but we are responsible for maintaining the mental environment that breeds those thoughts.

"When people show you who they are, believe them." -- Maya Angelou

Now that I know who she is, I find Paula Deen deplorable. Not only for her foul language but for her opportunism -- the unhealthy eating she promotes, despite the fact that she suffers from Type 2 diabetes, a fact that she didn't reveal until it was financially beneficial to her as the spokesperson for a Danish corporation that markets a non-insulin diabetes drug.

Yes, she seems like a horrible person. But she spoke some uncomfortable truths. I wonder if people are upset because she's used the N word, because she admitted to using the N word, or because they are just as guilty of using the N word themselves. When it shines on society, the glare from a mirror is the harshest, most unflattering light.

"How quickly Americans don't forget," Boy George once told me when I asked him about his own experiences with bad PR. Paula Deen is about to learn this the hard way. And it couldn't happen to a more deserving racist.
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