Why Paula Deen Matters

The Lady and Sons Restaurant

The Food Network dumped Paula Deen. While many are angry at them, it seems to me to be a pretty okay outcome. After all, Deen went from local restaurant owner to multimillionaire culinary superstar with their help. And all of this in a country in which many restaurant workers are denied sick leave, and most earn less than a livable wage.

And while the decision seems sudden, I’m guessing the Food Network has been aware of Deen’s nasty little race problem for a while. In her own autobiography, she admits to having been stopped from presenting a recipe for a Sambo burger to her audience. So this wasn’t a one-strike-and-you’re-out kind of situation. Anyway, I’m just not able to muster sympathy for someone who expresses a desire for a traditional Southern plantation style wedding with all black waiters (which, if you know something about traditional Southern plantations, as Deen admits she does, would mean the wait staff would be playing the parts of slaves).

Regardless, in the days since she got dumped, the Food Network’s Facebook page has exploded with threats of boycotts, with some of Deen’s supporters throwing n-bombs in the process of defending their idol. Then this past Sunday, the New York Times ran a story about the line down the block that formed outside of Deen’s Savannah restaurant. That line was like a protest march in support of Deen who those on line defend as someone who should be forgiven for clinging to racism for going on seven decades now because she was “born at another time.”

I find all of this troubling. Not surprising, mind you, but troubling. Why? Because those arguing that Deen should be forgiven fail to understand something really basic that’s at stake. Whites of that other time being referred to, basically the 1950s and 1960s, were indeed raised in a culture of racism so thick it would have been difficult to see through it. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t have choices. There has always been resistance to racism among whites, and denying it is historical revisionism.

I was reminded of that this past Friday, June 21. On that date, 49 years ago, two white men, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman (along with an African American man named James Chaney) were murdered by a Ku Klux Klan lynch mob near Meridian, Mississippi because they were registering black voters. Also in June, 46 years ago, the Supreme Court decision in the Loving v. Virginia case struck down laws banning interracial marriage. Richard Loving was a white man, and the Loving case dominated the news cycle for months, especially in the South.

You’d have to have been living under a rock to be ignorant of these events back in the 1960s. Paula Deen made choices, even if her choice was to see no evil, hear no evil, and speak…okay, well, two out of three anyway. But there’s more.

When I started my career 34 years ago, I wrote with a typewriter. Wite-Out was an essential tool. When I made typing errors, I had to stop, paint them out, and then wait for the paint to dry before I could type over them. I did a whole lot of typing, so this ritual was like a reflex to me. I did it automatically and I did it uncritically because that’s just how it was done.

If my boss caught me using Wite-Out on my computer screen today, and repeatedly, in spite of having it pointed out that it is out of sync with the times and is damaging the equipment, would you blame her if she fired me? No. You might feel sorry for me for being “born in another time,” but you’d probably agree with my boss that I’m just not adaptable enough for a job that requires word processing on a computer. Same is true if I insisted on exclusively using land lines in a mobile business or only used postal mail in a business requiring speedy communication.

The point here is that the context for the kind of racism that Paula Deen grew up with has changed. Deen herself has changed. She couldn’t be a successful businesswoman if she was the same person she was in 1965, and last I looked she wasn’t walking around in poodle skirts and bobby socks. But, there is a pile of evidence growing that in the course of all that change, certain ideas about race have stayed pretty much the same.

If we’re genuinely concerned about racial equity, rather than defend her for failing to adapt to a new racial consensus (that, by the way, exists because we got past the idea that people of color are subhuman), we might just ask ourselves why those racist ideas have survived, even when so many other things like Wite-Out and sending most of our mail by post have gone by the wayside. There’s an important lesson to be learned from Deen’s story. Of course, that lesson is only valuable if we wish to make the kind of changes that it demands of us.





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By Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa is a political strategist and writer who has spent more than four decades exploring questions of structural racism, white supremacy, and social justice. Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against authoritarianism, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism. Currently, Scot is co-lead of the 22nd Century Initiative, a project to build the field of resistance to authoritarianism in the U.S.

Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow, an Open Society Foundations Fellow, and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Community Leader Award. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition,  and Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.

Scot's political essays, briefings, and other educational media can be found at his newsletter, We Fight the Right at He is a sought after public speaker and educator who provides consultation on campaign and communications strategy, and fundraising.

3 replies on “Why Paula Deen Matters”

Yes – I”m “from another time” too – if that means we were young people in the 60’s and 70’s – and we would have to be brain dead not to know that the Civil Rights movement/liberation movements existed – and we all make choices to work on our racism/sexism/homophobia that we are conditioned to have – or not to work on it. Paula apparently made a choice not to struggle to overcome.

While I agree thay a business woman such as Deen should adapt to the times, I find your comparison between evolved human behaviors and the advancement of technology to be a bit of a stretch. Additionally, the only reason Deen has been targeted is because she’s a celebrity… Just as we saw in the Martha Stuart case. If Walmart and Target are willing to take her products off the shelves due to the big ‘N’ word, every artist, no matter what their race, who uses the same ‘N’ word in their musice should also have CDs and product lines dropped from stores. I’m white, but I don’t call my own people ‘cracker’, so othes should not use such language if they don’t like to be called such things.

Kate, I have to respectfully disagree. I have had my daughter, who was 4 years old at the time, come home crying from preschool because the mother of her friend told her ‘Chrissy can’t play with you because we don’t associate with “n” words.’ I’m black, my children are biracial. I had to explain to my baby what that word meant, and that some people will not like you based on the color of your skin, even though this woman looks almost exactly like your Auntie. It was weeks before she wasn’t sad, and I had to watch her and Chrissy look at each other with longing every time they saw each other, because they didn’t really understand why they couldn’t play together. There have been many times in the 11 years since that her and her sister have faced racism.
People of color cannot hide our children from racism, it’s everywhere in our world, and though I don’t use that word myself (‘ga not ‘ger) I understand the desire to adopt it and take the sting out of it by using it as a term of endearment, much in the way that some women call each other ‘bitch’. The music that uses that word, with the exception of people like David Allen Coe and Johnny Rebel, have the right to use that word if they want to, since they’re going to be called it anyway. I don’t know anyone at all who uses the word ‘cracker’ except my friends (all white) in West Virginia.
You can’t really know the power of that word when said with hate and venom unless you’ve lived it in black skin. Paula Deen is a grown woman who understood the consequences her actions would likely have. Comparing that to Martha Stewart’s insider trading? Not even the same thing. Paula alienated a whole bunch of people who watch that channel and spend money in those stores. They’re protecting their business interests.

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