By Eugene Robinson
WASHINGTON—Paula Deen needs to give the self-pity a rest. The damage to her carefully built image is self-inflicted—nobody threw a rock—and her desperate search for approval and vindication is just making things worse.
Sorry to be so harsh, but come on. Deen is tough and savvy enough to have built a culinary empire from scratch, in the process becoming the most famous Southern cook in creation. She incarnates the whole “steel magnolia” archetype, with razor-sharp toughness beneath the flutter and the filigree.
“I is what I is,” she said in her weepy exculpation on the “Today” show.
And that’s fine. Go ahead, be what you be. Just don’t try to make everybody else responsible.
For anyone who somehow managed to miss this whole melodrama—distracted, perhaps, by trifles such as landmark Supreme Court rulings or shocking revelations of government snooping—Deen’s troubles stem from a deposition she gave last month in a lawsuit filed by a former employee.
Under oath, Deen acknowledged that “of course” she had used the racial slur known euphemistically as the N-word. This was years ago, she explained, and, well, people use inappropriate language when they’re telling jokes, but she never used that word in a hurtful way.
On the contrary, Deen told “Today” host Matt Lauer, she is now the victim—of “very, very hurtful lies” and the erroneous judgments of “people I have never heard of (who) are all of a sudden experts on who I am.”
I guess that includes me. But I believe Deen is familiar with the Food Network, Smithfield Foods, Wal-Mart, Target, Caesars Entertainment and the Novo Nordisk pharmaceutical company, all of which have severed or suspended their business relationships with her in recent days. Executives of those firms are the constituency that Deen seems to have lost, even if much of her fan base remains loyal.
The question isn’t just whether Deen used an ugly, forbidden word, or how many times she used it, or how long ago that was. The question is whether there is anything about race and diversity in this country that she really understands.
For me, the most jaw-dropping passages in Deen’s deposition concern plans she was making for her brother Bubba’s wedding. In thinking about how the food service should be done, she recalled visiting a restaurant “in Tennessee or North Carolina or somewhere” that she admired.
“The whole entire wait staff was middle-aged black men, and they had on beautiful white jackets with a black bow tie,” Dean says in the deposition. “I mean, it was really impressive. And I remember saying I would love to have servers like that, I said, but I would be afraid that somebody would misinterpret.”
Her fears are well-founded.
“Of course I’m old but I ain’t that old,” Deen goes on, “I didn’t live back in those days but I’ve seen pictures, and the pictures that I’ve seen, that restaurant represented a certain era in America.”
Asked what era she’s talking about, Deen replies, “Well, I don’t know. After the Civil War, during the Civil War, before the Civil War.”
The attorney questioning her says: “Right. Back in an era when there were middle-aged black men waiting on white people.”
Deen answers: “Well, it was not only black men, it was black women.”
She goes on to acknowledge that in antebellum years those well-dressed servants would have been slaves, but clarifies that she “did not mean anything derogatory.” She needn’t worry, because the only person she’s derogating is herself.
The woman is 66, not 96. She was all of 7 when the Supreme Court issued its Brown v. Board of Education decision, which means she’s had plenty of time to get used to it. She has spent her adult life in an America where black people are not compelled to be subservient to whites. She has made her fortune in an America where most people, white as well as black, consider warm-and-fuzzy nostalgia for the days of slavery and Jim Crow to be highly offensive.
I’ll put it in terms that someone who missed the last 50 years might understand: Allblack people are uppity now. Every one of us, I’m afraid.
I hope she figures it out, because anyone that fond of the deep-fryer can’t be all bad. A period of silence would be a good start. My advice: Eat some hushpuppies. And don’t talk with your mouth full.
Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
© 2013, Washington Post Writers Group
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