This post contains language that may be considered offensive.
Let me open with a clarification. I am not here to defend the words or actions of Paula Deen. I don’t know the lady. I have never met her. What I would like to address is the reaction to what is playing out in the courts and in the news. The impression I am getting is that she is being metaphorically banished from the collective tribe of America. Food Network has cut ties as well as many others, at least twelve according to one headline. I think it’s safe to say her career is pretty much over. She is getting publicly vilified and why? So the rest of us don’t have to be.
Over the course of my life I have lived in Switzerland, Tennessee and in Kentucky. I’ll admit I grew up perhaps a bit naive about the racial history of America. I didn’t think much about the color of a person’s skin, hair, eyes, etc. and I just assumed that the rest of the world did the same. I remember the exact moment it all came crashing down for me. Sitting in one of the middle rows of my school bus in the eighth grade, the doors had just opened and a handful of students exited. The kids on the bus were loud and unruly, par for the course. Suddenly a white boy from the back of the bus, ran up the aisle towards the still open bus door. His face pinched with anger, cheeks flushed and fists clenched. The bus driver, a small but determined woman, immediately stood up and blocked his exit. The boy pointed to one of the others outside the bus. I still remember the vitriol is his voice when he said to the bus driver, “He called me a nigger-lover,”
The bus driver, the only adult in a vehicle full of at least fifty people, planted her hands on her hips and said “Well, you are going to have to get by me and I don’t think you can, ’cause you’re not big enough!”
The boy sullenly trudged back to his seat in the back of the bus.
I remember thinking several thoughts in the time span of the next few seconds. People still use that word? My next thought was, why is that an insult? My third, why is no one freaking out about what just happened? I didn’t understand, but just like the rest of my classmates I kept it to myself. From that moment onward I slowly began to realize that the world we live in is not the hand holding, peace loving, racially sensitive we’re-all-just-people love-fest that I had originally thought.
As time passed I became more aware of our downfalls. Yes, we humans sure do have a tendency to judge one another. I remember overhearing to girls in my senior class talking about a little boy in the day care that one of them worked for. They were discussing the child’s tendency to cry or throw fits. Then one of them whispered to the other “He’s black,” The other girl knowingly nodded with a sympathetic tilt to her head. But both of those stories happened in high school, nearly twenty years ago. Even if these small anecdotes are just samples of the overreaching attitude of the existing culture they can be excused under the umbrella of youthful indiscretions, echoes of a fading archaic mindset…right?
I have been fortunate enough to have a diverse group of friends over the years. One day in college some of us watched a movie, Romeo and Juliet and (really unnecessary spoiler alert) after the scene depicting the death of Mercrutio, one of my African-American friends exclaimed in frustration. “Every time!”
I said, “What, every time? What do you mean?” Though I already knew.
He said, “They always kill the black guy. Every movie you watch. The black guys always gets killed! Always!”
I said, “It’s Shakespeare. Everyone gets killed,” But I knew he was right.
He spent the next twenty minutes describing plot lines and movie scenes in which the persons of color existed for no other apparent reason than to provide fodder for the monster/ murderer/ bad guys/ mutant shark, etc. From that conversation onward I started to notice just how pervasive this phenomenon is in movies. But that’s movies. That’s just the fat-cats in Hollywood trying to meet the quota of diverse characters and failing miserably. That’s not representative of the real actual people that walk around and make up the real meat and potatoes of America’s consciousness…. right?
In the last week alone I have heard the water cooler chit chat go from “Have you heard about Paula Deen?” followed by head shaking and hand wringing about the state of the world. Then someone glances to the side with a wry smile and says in lowered tones “Have you heard this racist joke?” Instead of shutting it down, most people lean in, glance around and gleefully listen. Though I do not hear the actual “n-word” used in casual conversation, I hear underpinnings of racial tension.
Paula Deen messed up. Yes. There is no denying that. She is on the receiving end of some serious vilification. She is branded now and will probably never truly bounce back from this serious of a blunder. But the reason she is getting this treatment is not because of her mistake. It is to justify our own socially acceptable systemic racism. As long as there is a Paula Deen or a Michael Richards, someone within our society who crosses the socially determined line of what is and is not acceptable, we can point to them and say “I’m not racist, because at least I don’t use the n-word,”