By now I’m guessing you’ve all heard about Food Network personality, Paula Deen’s, giant P.R. problem. When the transcript of a video deposition revealed she’s used racist slurs, including the n-bomb, her TV I.Q. went into the toilet and her Southern fried racism became an internet meme.
In response, Deen’s lawyer released statement of apology. I’ll spare you the details. Basically the apology revealed an ignorance so intense it almost served as an excuse. When it comes to race, the lights are out and no one is at home at Deen manor. But there’s one thing about the apology that goes beyond ignorance. Her lawyer boils down Deen by saying that it’s okay that she’s kinda racist because she’s old.
Here’s a taste of what Deen, Inc. laid down,
…[Deen] was born 60 years ago when America’s South had schools that were segregated, different bathrooms, different restaurants and Americans rode in different parts of the bus. This is not today…
So, the suggestion is, while those old days of overt racism aren’t the same as today, it stank so bad that a bit of that stink still lingers on Paula Deen. Say what?
That’s no kind of excuse. I mean, sure, Paula Deen is old. She was born in 1947. That means she was 16 years old when segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace famously stood at the door of Foster Auditorium to block attempts to integrate the University of Alabama. That’s an elder for sure. She was also 16 when Birmingham, Alabama Commissioner of Public Safety Bull Connor horrified every decent human being in the United States by turning fire hoses and attack dogs on peaceful civil rights demonstrators, including children. She was 8 when racists in Mississippi brutalized and murdered African American 14 year old Emmett Till for daring to speak up to a white woman.
Paula Deen was a witness to this history, some of which happened just beyond her back fence. She was 17, on the cusp of adulthood, when Fannie Lou Hamer, on behalf of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, went up against Lyndon Johnson at the Democratic National Convention, famously demanding to be seated by saying,
All of this is on account we want to register [sic], to become first-class citizens, and if the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America. Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily because we want to live as decent human beings – in America?
And Paul Deen was 16 when Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his historic I Have A Dream speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and 21 years old when Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis in the name of white supremacy.
In the decades since then, Paula Deen has become a culinary icon. She is the ambassador of a major brand and owner of a successful restaurant business. She has, I imagine, met people from all walks of life. As a lifelong Southerner, I’m guessing Ms. Deen has some black friends and acquaintances and has employed black people in her businesses many times over.
All of these experiences are the benefits of age. They are advantages younger white people don’t have. Younger generations grew up in a time of backlash, not of progress. They must rely on history books to know that there was a time when racial slurs were commonplace, and lynchings and church bombings, terrorism and cross burnings were part of the regular news cycle. Not so for Paula. She was there.
So using age as an excuse for one’s racism, especially in the case of a white Southerner, is really just a way of saying that in spite of having been a witness to history and having first hand knowledge of black people, and of the damage that racism has done to black lives, not to mention having seen the mammoth struggle of black people to overcome racism right in her own backyard, she remains unable to see black folk as just folk. And if she slips and uses the “n” word now and then, why, we ought to just give her a pass.