Friday, June 28, 2013

fall of the Butter Queen

[NB: I had originally intended to write a single post covering both the Paula Deen flap and the Supreme Court's ruling on an aspect of DOMA, but the Deen post—as you see below—grew until it became a malignancy that couldn't be ignored or compromised with, so I've made it into its own separate post. DOMA will come later.]

I used to have a "Nana." In American English, the word means different things to different people; for my family, Nana was a woman named Rae who had unilaterally declared herself my grandmother—a cashier coworker of my mother's (back when Mom worked at National Airport) who insinuated herself into our family and never left. She adored me and my two little brothers—loved us to death. I never found out where Nana was originally from, but her eardrum-smacking country twang told us she was from the sticks.

Back in the 1970s, Nana lived in a trailer park on Route 1 in Alexandria, next to the old drive-in cinema, and she'd have me stay overnight on occasion. I could read novels to my heart's content, or watch TV, or even go to the movies. Nana had two biological grandsons, and it was with them that I saw cool films like "Star Wars." As the years passed, Nana moved into a legitimate apartment in Fredericksburg, Virginia; we visited her there a couple times a year, and she'd have a marvelous spread of food waiting for us. Much of our time during those visits was spent simply sitting in her sun-bright living room, talking about nothing and everything. She'd ask how we were doing in school; she'd ask about our summer vacation plans. In short, she kept an eye on us the way any loving grandmother would. Back when I was a kid, I used to be sad whenever we left Nana's place; she treated us so well.

But as I got older, I began to realize that, however much she loved our half-Korean family, Nana couldn't stand black people. Her racism ran deep. My discovery of her prejudice was initially shocking, then appalling. I didn't know, any longer, what to do when I was around her. Her attitude became the subtext of every conversation; it infused, like a miasma, every visit as I saw her more and more clearly.

I remember when Nana grew old enough to be moved to an elder care center. She spent most of her time in bed—watched over, ironically, by a staff that included black members. I would sit by her bed sometimes, holding her hand, and would gently ask her what she had against black people. I don't think I ever got a straight answer from her. For her, holding on to her prejudice was more important than rationally justifying it.

"What about Martin Luther King?" I asked her incredulously one day.

Nana shook her head. "Lower'n dirt," she said flatly, speaking to the ceiling. There was obviously little point in discussing the matter further. Funny... now that I think about it, Nana used to have a picture of Jesus on her wall. White Jesus, of course.

Is it possible to love a racist? Can love coexist with revulsion? For myself, all I can say is that I cried when Nana passed away. Her memorial service included an open-casket viewing. As the line of people moved forward and I found myself next to Nana's withered body, I placed my big, warm hand on her small, cold, wrinkled one, and wordlessly wished her safe passage. Then I left the funeral home, walked blindly out into the parking lot, sat down at a curb, and cried beneath the silent stars.

Culturally speaking, former Food Network superstar Paula Deen comes from the same ornery Southern stock as Nana. She has the same grandmotherly charm, the same obnoxious twang, and for years she was the reigning queen of Southern-style comfort food—all butter and grease, with enough carbs to give an elephant an infarction. In a court deposition for a discrimination case, Deen recently said "Yes, of course" in response to a question about whether she had ever used the epithet "nigger." As soon as this came to light, controversy erupted. Deen is currently being sued by Lisa Jackson, a white manager of one of Deen's several restaurants. Jackson claims both to have been sexually discriminated against and to have been a witness to Deen's verbal abuse, which included the use of what people euphemistically call "the N-word."

Over the past several days, Deen has mounted a strange but morbidly fascinating PR defense. She released two apology videos on YouTube; the first video must have been deemed too awkward, because it was soon taken down and replaced by the second. Both videos feature a hand-wringing Deen who doesn't seem all there: her deer-in-the-headlights expression says it all; she looks like a woman in shock as her empire crumbles around her. Watching the videos, I half expected Deen to break into the Macbeth soliloquy, that emotionally distant recitation of a monarch in the midst of losing everything, now struck by the fundamental meaninglessness of all his labors: "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow..."

Initially unable to appear on a broadcast with journalist Matt Lauer, Deen eventually did appear, and this time she seemed both vulnerable and more defensive. In her most recent interviews, Deen has said things like, "[These are] very, very hurtful lies... [P]eople I have never heard of are all of a sudden experts on who I am." She has also tried to turn the tables on her detractors, taking up the aegis of no less than Jesus Christ and God Himself, simultaneously inviting those without sin to cast the first stone and invoking the sacred "I AM" (יהוה, YHWH) Tetragrammaton of the book of Exodus:

"If there's anyone out there that has never said something that they wished they could take back, if you're out there, please pick up that stone and throw it so hard at my head that it kills me. Please, I want to meet you. I want to meet you. I is what I is and I'm not changing."

At this point it might be fair to ask whether Paula Deen is actually sorry for her past sins. "I'm not changing" indicates intransigence and defiance. She also noted that "I wouldn't have fired me" which, along with her feeling that she's been misapprehended by the public, indicates a sense of unjust persecution. I detect little, if any, real regret in such a stance, which implies that the tears she cried in front of Matt Lauer may have been mere crocodile tears. Southern belles, and former Southern belles, are known to shed those.

It may not really matter how sorry Deen is: she's outta here. Her sponsors—from the Food Network to Wal-mart to Smithfield to Home Depot to Novo Nordisk—have almost all dropped her, and while her loyal fan base has been busy writing and speaking in her defense (even vampire author Anne Rice, who didn't know Deen existed until this controversy came to light, has spoken up on behalf of the Southern chef), a torrent of articles expressing shock at and disappointment in Deen has erupted, and is only growing worse.

Is Paula Deen a racist? By her own reckoning, absolutely not, yet I'm fascinated by the "of course" in her "Yes, of course" reply during the court deposition. Why "of course"? Was Deen trying to say, "Of course I used the word 'nigger'! I'm Southern, so what do you expect?"? If that was her intention, well... it's awfully lame to try to hide behind a quaint and pernicious stereotype. Personally, I'd rather give modern Southerners the benefit of the doubt and assume that many, if not most, have learned their lesson since the Civil War. Innocent until proven guilty, and all that.

But if it wasn't Deen's intention to hide behind a stereotype with her "Of course," then what was her intention? I have no clue, but given how quickly her repentance hardened into wounded obduracy, I'm not inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt. And that, I suppose, is where Nana and Paula Deen part ways for me: Nana loved me as if I were a grandson, which made her unrepentant racism all the more painful; Paula Deen is someone I've never met in person, and she's never been central to my existence. I have no deep personal feelings about her, one way or another. Just as George Carlin claimed to take a Joker-like delight in the breakdown of society's structures, I witness the melting-away of Paula Deen's buttery dominion with more than a little Schadenfreude.

ADDENDUM: A decidedly more conservative take on the Paula Deen mess can be found here. The article by Larry Elder, to which Dr. Vallicella links, essentially argues not that Deen did nothing wrong, but that others have done worse and have gotten away with it. That's no defense of Deen. My brother was once pulled over by a cop for speeding. David tried to argue that another nearby car had been speeding as well. "But I caught you," replied the cop (I know this because I was David's passenger at the time). And that's really all that's relevant. If you counterargue that the issue Elder is discussing is fairness, well, I'm sure David's cop would reply that life ain't always fair, so suck it up, Buttercup.

ADDENDUM 2: Some skepticism about the "Paula Deen isn't racist" meme. Be sure to watch the entire video.

ADDENDUM 3: from an article that I like a lot, despite the fact that it makes a point that could have been made by Baudrillard (a French postmodernist thinker who did a lot of work studying the relationship between being and seeming):

These revelations didn't only hurt Deen with a certain number of people who don't consider themselves part of a southern tradition, who may have recoiled from things like her recitation of her dreamed wedding that sounded very much like a plantation fantasy. They also hurt her with a segment of southerners who know that every time this happens, every time a southern lady acts like everybody knows most jokes are about black people and Jewish people and rednecks, they have to listen to an avalanche of obnoxious Yankee generalizing about how no one should expect anything else from a southern lady of a certain age, which is, of course, false.

As James Poniewozik wrote at Time, "Deen made a pile of money off a certain idea of old-school southern culture. In return, she had an obligation to that culture — an obligation not to embody its worst, most shameful history and attitudes. Instead, in one swoop, fairly or not, she single-handedly affirmed people's worst suspicions of people who talk and eat like her."

ADDENDUM 4: Some defenders of Paula Deen are claiming that she's being unfairly crucified for "something she said years ago." I've seen this meme pop up a lot. First, watch the video to which I linked in Addendum 2, above, then tell me that Deen has repented of her old ways. Second, the "something she said years ago" wasn't some one-off incident: it was, rather, a history and a pattern of verbal habits—precisely the thing she's being accused of in Lisa Jackson's lawsuit. Sorry, folks, but there's a reason Deen's under the microscope.



John said...

My father (born and raised in Memphis) used the n-word quite a bit while I was growing up. But I never saw him treat a person of color unkindly (hell, quite a few were shipmates and drinking buddies). Looking back, I put it in the same category as him never saying refrigerator, it was always an icebox. It was just the word he grew up.

Regardless, actions speak louder than words. Your Nana expressed hatred towards people based on skin color. Deen used an inappropriate word, but absent some evidence of discriminatory treatment towards blacks, I'm not comfortable with branding her a racist.

Frankly, hearing liberals brand any person of color who doesn't toe the party line as an Uncle Tom strikes me as at least equally offensive, yet they seem to get a free pass. I get so weary of these meaningless attacks on anyone who doesn't toe the PC line.

I've never seen a worse racist than Al Sharpton, and he's got his own TV show. Ah well, it's all for show anyway. I'd prefer folks just be honest about it.

SJHoneywell said...

Racism, real hardcore racism, runs deep. The reason is that that sort of inbred, generational, institutionalized racism becomes its own environment--it becomes something that's so much a part of the person and the culture that it can't be seen any more.

My in-laws were that sort of racist. They simply could not conceive that there was anything backward about the opinion.

Kevin Kim said...


You may have been writing your comment at the same time as I was writing my addendum to this post. (See above.)

Kevin Kim said...


Good point. And having lived in South Korea for eight years, and having experienced racism myself, I'm a lot more sympathetic to the black situation in America than I used to be. Experience cultivates empathy. Racism, when supported by the surrounding community, most definitely "becomes its own environment"—pervasive, noxious, and cancerous.


If I were black, and if a big, friendly white guy put his arm around my shoulder and told me fraternally that I was "the best damn nigger [he] ever met," I guarantee my feelings toward that guy wouldn't be positive, no matter how racially egalitarian his actions seemed. To my ears, he'd just sound ig'nant.

Obviously, there's a whole other discussion we could be having about the complex nature and history of racism, but I'm not going to weigh down this thread by following that path. Maybe, if I write another blog post devoted more generally to that topic...

Chip Lary said...

When I was three or four I saw the first black people I had ever met and I said something like "Look Mama!" while pointing. (This was in Maine in the late 60s). We were in a store and my mother grabbed my hand and yanked me, cartoon style with my legs practically off the ground, a few aisles over and angrily told me that "They don't like people to mention that". My recollection isn't that she didn't like black people, but that I had embarrassed her. I never thought of her as racist. I heard her use a racial epithet every once in a great while, although not in this case, and never in regards to a specific person. I never heard her say anything by the time I was in my teens.

Fast forward to 2008 and Obama gets elected. Not only her, but her sister and brother - all around 80 years old - start throwing the n word around left and right whenever they were talking about Obama in private. I was shocked. I thought that they were long beyond that, but apparently the way they were raised in the 30s and 40s had stuck with them their entire lives and when a mixed race man became President those attitudes all came boiling to the surface again.

Do I hate my relatives? Of course not. I'm just disappointed by this one aspect of theirs and when they start to get going on Obama I change the subject.

Kevin Kim said...


I hear you. When someone you love reveals an unpleasant side of him- or herself, it's impossible to flip a mental/emotional switch and stop loving that person.

John said...

Just so I'm clear--if I use the n-word I'm a racist. But is it racism if a black person calls me a cracker? Does calling someone a queen or a teabagger make you a homophobe? Who gets to call someone an Uncle Tom?

It just seems to me there is a double standard at work here. This piling on Deen is way over the top when so many others get a free pass.

Kevin Kim said...


"Just so I'm clear--if I use the n-word I'm a racist. But is it racism if a black person calls me a cracker?"

Yes, indeed. Blacks can be as racist as whites.

"Does calling someone a queen or a teabagger make you a homophobe? Who gets to call someone an Uncle Tom?"

Considering the recent Alec Baldwin case, in which he used all manner of homophobic terminology to describe a British journalist who wrote that Baldwin's wife had been tweeting at James Gandolfini's funeral, I'd say that yes: Baldwin's revealing more than a mild case of homophobia.

"It just seems to me there is a double standard at work here. This piling on Deen is way over the top when so many others get a free pass."

Undoubtedly. But this is no defense of Deen, who apparently has a history of making racist remarks. Personally, I'd love to see Baldwin crucified for what he said. And you're right: it's not gonna happen.

Maqzito said...

Its very peculiar to me that whenever a white celebrity is skewered in the media for saying something like the n-word, a group of angry white people always come out to defend the celebrity quoting the whole "well black people call me cracker" mess. Double-standard? Yes! But guess what? The US government had a double standard for white and black people for a LONG TIME. How can a nation abolish slavery and give full rights and citizenship to a group of people and just expect the effects of that enslavement/second-class status to just vanish?

No one is saying that Paula Deen should be put in jail. No one is saying that Deen should be censored by the government by threat of imprisonment. She is free to say whatever she wants. She can say the n-word all day long. Problem is that if her customers don't like what she is saying they are also free to boycott her business all day long. If I opened a Jewish style deli and put swastikas all over the windows should I feel victimized that all my customers left?

And another thing that people seem to forget/minimize in all of this: black people in the US were enslaved, raped, tortured, and beaten for a LONG TIME. Why is it so hard to understand what an enormous effect that would have on a group of people? If the worst thing we're talking about here is people not wanting to support this woman, then what is the big problem?
I hear a lot of people who get upset with "having to be PC" nowadays. I understand and agree with that sentiment to a certain extent, but when it comes to something as simple as this, like simply saying "black" or "African-American" instead of "nigger", I find it so laughable that people get so upset about having to make that change. How is saying "black" instead of "nigger" somehow such a huge inconvenience? But maybe that's the point: those that refuse to make such a simple change that with give respect to a group that has suffered under this government in the (not so long ago) past will reap the negativity that results from that idiocy.