Paula Deen just can’t seem to catch a break.
Now, I’m not what you would call a big Paula Deen fan. I’ve never eaten at her restaurant. To my knowledge I’ve never even eaten a meal prepared from one of her recipes. The only time I’ve seen her cooking on TV is when channel surfing. Still, unless we have been living in a cave somewhere without a smartphone we could not escape the months of frenzied media attention devoted to Deen’s admission that in the distant past she had uttered the N-word.
The story broke when the National Enquirer reported that on May 17, during a legal deposition, Deen admitted to having uttered that offensive word in her past. Immediately, mainstream media picked it up and pursued it with a vengeance. The day after the story broke, I recall a CNN reporter grilling an African-American pastor who knows Deen. It was obvious that the pastor was not cooperating because he obstinately refused to renounce her as a racist. In fact, he had the audacity to list positive things Deen had done for the African-American community. The reporter’s frustration became apparent as he finally changed tactics and commended the pastor for being so gracious.
Estimates are that Deen has lost a minimum of $12 million in endorsements and promotions as big-name companies like Walmart, Target, Smithfield Foods, the Food Network and a host of others dropped her like a hot potato with real creamery butter, sour cream, bacon bits and chives.
In an ironic twist of fate, her first appearance on television since the scandal was in a guest role on MasterChef, which coincidentally aired on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech! See what I mean about catching a break? The program was taped in March, long before her trouble began, but Fox network said her appearance couldn’t be edited out because she was too integral to the entire show. Moreover, it was bound to scheduling agreements to air the program on that day!
I am not defending what she said. I don’t condone using any term that demeans another human being, much less an entire race of them. But neither do I press the attack on Deen because I’m not in a position to cast stones. I once called a large man “fat.” He found it very offensive and said as much from his position in the mirror opposite me.
Let’s get real. How many white people, particularly those raised in the South, over 50 years old have never uttered the N-word? And how many black people have never even spoken the word “cracker” (except in the saltine sense) or “honkey?”
I don’t mean to minimize the effect the N-word has on African-Americans. Even though no living American was ever a slave, I am aware that awful effects linger and the N-term is offensive. But I do take exception if we make uttering the N-word the seemingly single un-pardonable sin in American society. Another American cooker was convicted of insider trading and spent time in prison. Yet the response to Martha Stew-art’s offense was nothing compared to Deen’s (and after all this, the suit against her was dismissed by the judge).
Does anyone but me wonder how a culture obsessed with using the F-word can possibly become so horrified at Deen’s use of the N-word that it condoned her media lynching? I do understand that one is generally applied in a racial sense while the other is offensive in a moral sense. Still, how can we be so sensitive in one case and so utterly dismissive in the other?
Not just that. An online blogger remarked, “Paula Deen, formerly a beloved celebrity chef, admitted to using the ‘N’ word. And, rightfully, it is ruining her career.” If using the N-word is, in and of itself, grounds for public disgrace and financial ruin we would expect the word to be equally offensive regardless of the speaker. Not so. Rappers, for example, toss the word around like politicians throwing candy at an Independence Day parade. Where is the uprising of offended masses? Where is the media frenzy?
Another thing confuses me. Perhaps, since most rappers are themselves black, maybe the term is offensive only if uttered by a white person. If the offense is primarily racial in nature, we might imagine that the principle of condemning racial slurs uttered by a member of a different ethnic group would hold universally. But this isn’t the case, either.
Remember when Harlem Congressman Charlie Rangel used the term “white crackers?” You don’t? I’m not surprised. It wasn’t widely reported. In an interview conducted on Aug. 2, he said that the Tea Party was made up of the same white crackers civil rights reformers faced. Never mind that those particular white crackers happened to be Democrats, in the main.
My point is not that Rangel should have been censured, but that judgment has been applied unfairly and unevenly despite Deen’s repeated, though somewhat bumbling, attempts to apologize. As I said, I’m not defending her use of the term, but I am taking up for her right to be treated just as others are. Instead, the media seems to have found someone they can abuse with impunity and they have made the most of it. They have acted shamelessly, in my opinion, displaying the same glee as playground bullies picking on the chubby girl at recess until she cries.
Some media voice should have been raised in opposition to the treatment she received. Others came to Deen’s defense. Sheila Cutchlow, an African-American chef who was mentored by Deen, scoffs at the idea that Deen is a racist. She says Deen changed her life for the better.
What really concerns me in all this is the utter lack of understanding, forgiveness and grace. No sensible person, and certainly no Christian, can condone pejorative and abusive terms being directed at any other person. But in this one instance it seems that some were so determined to see her hurt that their offense is at least as great as hers.
No person should be subjected to hurtful and hateful behavior. Not even Paula Deen.
Jim White ([email protected]) is executive editor of the Religious Herald.