Casting stones at Paula Deen

She makes too easy a target for pillorying

  • Paula Deen appears on NBC News' "Today" show in this handout released to Reuters on June 26, 2013 by NBC NewsWire. U.S. celebrity chef Paula Deen, who had admitted in a lawsuit that she had used a racial slur, said on Wednesday that she is not a racist and would never intentionally hurt anyone.
Paula Deen appears on NBC News' "Today" show… (HANDOUT / REUTERS )
June 30, 2013|Susan Reimer

Paula Deen has just paid the biggest price in the history of the universe for using a bad word.

Her network and just about every last business partner have dumped her. The best guess is that her annual income will drop from about $17 million to around $7 million. That's quite a fine.

She also has had to grovel to Jesse Jackson for something called "redemption."

Martha Stewart feels sorry for her.

And, in a "Today" show appearance that was painful to watch, she had to absorb the too-cool interrogation by Matt Lauer, of all people, while she stuttered and wept and twisted her hanky.

All for admitting — and she was under oath and required to do so — to a decades-old use of that racial slur, the "n-word."

You know the word. The one that is common in parts of the African-American community but radioactive when used by a white person. It is one of those nasty words that can only be used by the people who have had it used against them.

Women have a couple of those words, too. The b-word, the c-word. We can hand them out like party favors, but woe betide anyone outside our circle of oppression who uses them to describe us.

Paula Deen is more crass than class, a cartoonish version of a Southern momma who likes to cook up lots of food and love for her boys. To elevate her to this martyrdom in race relations is laughable on the face of it.

It is because she is shallow and dim — and because she is older — that it was easy to run her to ground over this. She seems confused and defenseless, and it doesn't look like an act. Her fame and fortune have amplified her mistake, but they haven't done the same with her ability to deal with the cascading consequences.

She isn't, for example, Paula Broadwell, the acolyte author who brought down CIA chief Gen. David Petraeus: young and smart and beautiful and fit and clever enough to go underground until the smoke clears. To reduce the likes of Paula Deen to a puddle seems almost like poor sportsmanship.

And not every instance of racist or sexist name-calling rises to a level requiring public humiliation and financial penalty on the scale that Paula Deen is experiencing right now. Nor does her status as a celebrity chef. We are talking the Food Network, here, people, not CBS or the Voice of America.

If we learned anything about ourselves in last week's flurry of Supreme Court decisions, it is that, as a country, we have not conquered our bigotries. Nor have we found all the right ways to disarm them. When Ms. Deen quoted the Bible and asked that he who is without sin cast the first stone at her, she might have been speaking for all of us.

When the estimable Mr. Lauer demanded of Ms. Deen, "Are you a racist?" her answer should probably have been, "Probably. Am I proud of that part of me? No. But there you have it."

I think that is what she was trying to say when she so ineloquently and so tearfully told "Today" viewers, "I is what I is and I'm not changing."

We subvert our bigotries and our prejudices to our manners — at least some people do, some of the time — because society requires it of us, and that's a good thing, as Martha Stewart might say.

Ms. Dean admitted in her deposition that she slipped at least once, long ago. That, according to her supporters, she has been able to be a kind and decent person most of the time since, especially to the African-American chefs she has sponsored and the staff she has hired, is a credit to her, not evidence of dishonesty or insincerity.

Would I like to see the men who have used those bad words against me stripped of their jobs and publicly shamed, as Paula Deen has been in this last week? Part of me would like to see that, yes. But not the part of me that wants to live in a civilized society.

That's what I would ask all the Paula Deen haters right now. Where are your manners?

Susan Reimer's column appears on Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at susan.reimer@baltsun.com and @SusanReimer on Twitter.com

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