What have we learned from Paula Deen, really? The TV chef and animal-fats enthusiast has paid a certain price for the revelations, following from a harassment lawsuit, that she had used the word "nigger" in the past, and that she had allegedly envisioned a slavery-influenced Southern plantation wedding for her brother Bubba, complete with "little niggers" in bow ties serving the guests. Despite Deen's two rambling apology videos, the Food Network announced it was terminating its relationship with Deen, and Wal-Mart, Target, Home Depot, and the Smithfield Foods pork empire all followed suit.
Ultimately it seems like a wise business decision for anyone with professional ties to Deen to sever them as quickly as possible. Though Deen’s fan base bubbled and frothed like boiling butter, angry at her many dismissals, the simple fact is that openly admitting to saying "nigger" simply isn't tolerated in polite society anymore, not even by Virginia-based ham producers.
But in a society obsessed with so-called "teachable moments," what has this tear-filled and low-drama mess taught us about contemporary racism? For the New York Observer, former Gawker writer Joshua David Stein decried what he saw as people "bullying" the wounded Deen. "Instead of acting with moderation, somberly stripping Ms. Deen of her power, wealth and influence ... we—me, you and everyone we know—have howled ourselves into a meanie frenzy," he wrote. "We’ve turned Ms. Deen from a creepy crazy racist fat-monger into a victim."
I'm not sure that the line between retribution and mob revenge is distinct enough in this case to agree that society has crossed it—Deen still has lots of supporters lining up to eat in her restaurants, for instance—but I will agree that if anyone's goal in regard to Paula Deen was to help expose to her the true error of her ways, somewhere it all went badly wrong amidst the screaming.
At this point, notable people's racism ruinations read like Mad Libs: [Celebrity Name] said [Racist Thing]. Issues public apology on/in [Media Outlet]. Is scolded/fired by [Brand]. The end.
When ESPN anchor Max Bretos asked on the air what Asian basketball player Jeremy Lin's weaknesses were last year, he used the term "chink in the armor," and was quickly suspended for 30 days after apologizing on Twitter. The network also fired a writer for using the same expression in a headline about Lin. In 1997, when golfer Fuzzy Zoeller asked that Tiger Woods not serve fried chicken and collard greens for his Master's tournament victory meal, he hastily apologized, but was soon dropped from a sponsorship deal by Kmart. Last month, when golfer Sergio Garcia made yet another fried-chicken joke about Woods, he offered an apology to "anybody I could have offended." In response, his sponsor TaylorMade-Adidas said it was "continuing to review the matter."
It's not just this way for racial slurs, of course. When rapper Rick Ross made a reference to date rape in a song lyric earlier this year, the normally boastful bear of a man was downright contrite when it came time to own up to his mistake. Reebok still dropped him as a brand representative soon thereafter. Similarly, when director Brett Ratner was caught saying "rehearsing is for fags" in 2011, his apology did little to calm his detractors, and he was forced to resign as producer of that year's Oscars ceremony.
It's rote by now: slur, apologize, briefly suffer shame, repeat. We all know and accept the process, but in the end do we believe any of it has real impact? If it did, one might expect Sergio Garcia to not make the exact same "Tiger Woods likes chicken" joke Fuzzy Zoeller did 16 years ago. One might expect the PGA, if it were actually serious about curbing racism in its sport, to reconsider its historic relationship with golf clubs like Augusta National, which had only six black members out of hundreds in 2010.
But we don't expect that. We expect what we get: Zoeller and Garcia receiving slaps on the wrist while absorbing no real understanding of why it's shameful to reduce a proudly multiracial person to an ugly black stereotype. I have a hard time believing Garcia's or Zoeller's—or Deen's—cares ever extended beyond the thought that they might lose lots of money for publicly spouting the bigotry they normally reserve for private. What celebrities who say racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, or homophobic things seem to learn in America is that they shouldn't say that stuff because it can be detrimental to their business, not because it is detrimental to the world around them.
What all this immaterial racism-scolding has yielded is a society in which people know it's bad to be racist without having any understanding of what racism actually means. Consider the case of Denise Helms, the California woman who last year went to her Facebook wall to write this immediately following President Obama's reelection: "And another 4 years of the nigger. maybe he will get assassinated this term..!!"
Following an internet uproar over her comments, and a Secret Service statement saying she was being "reviewed," Helms again took to her Facebook page to comment on the controversy: "Apparently a lot of people in Sacramento think I'm crazy and racist," she wrote. "WOW is all I got to say!! I'm not racist and I'm not crazy. just simply stating my opinion.!!!"
This is what America's decades of juvenile and ham-fisted handling of racial discussions has wrought: Helms, having been raised to grasp the very basic lesson that "racism = not good," had convinced herself that there's no way she could be a racist, because racists are bad people, and she's not a bad person. Rather, she was a lady simply stating her totally not racist opinion, which is that the president's a nigger and hopefully he'll get murdered.
I've never been a fan of Paula Deen, and her newly revealed attitudes and beliefs have only served to embolden my distaste. I also don't think it's incumbent upon businesses attempting to portray themselves as open to diversity to keep a known bigot on the payroll. Nevertheless, I can't help thinking that the way we go about trying to "fix" these kinds of outbursts is always nearsighted to the point of being inconsequential.
When I was in college, a conservative student group staged an "affirmative action bake sale," something that's become a relatively normal sight on campuses around the country. The gist is that all the baked goods on display can be purchased, but at a different price based on race. White students pay $1 for a brownie, while black students pay 50 cents, and Latino students a quarter. The lesson being that the complexities of affirmative action can be boiled down to the idea that black people get cheaper brownies than white people.
Naturally, the bake sale riled up a significant portion of minority students on campus, some of whom wanted a sincere apology out of the conservative group. They never got one. Instead, a small cadre of sociology professors came together and held an open forum in which all willing students, liberal or conservative, could publicly engage with one another about affirmative action. It was a room of college kids, so the forum ended up being treacly and melodramatic throughout, but it was also enlightening in a way that putting the racists into the stocks in order to shame them and then forget about them would never have been.
There is still a time and place to mock racists (this is fucking Gawker), but if our end goal is eradicating racism, then we need to try and put in efforts beyond finger-pointing and dropped sponsorship deals. What if, instead of forcing Paula Deen to beg everyone's forgiveness through heaving sobs on national television, we instead used that airtime to chat with her about her beliefs? What if rather than giving her the idiotic question, "Would you have fired you?" as Matt Lauer did, we asked her to calmly understand why a white lady calling for black servers at a plantation wedding—a frighteningly common wedding theme in the South—looks so ugly and so awful to a great many people? What if Deen were forced to confront an actual black person who was willing to speak rationally with her about her past racism and its origins? The conversation probably wouldn't result in the Klan disbanding and volunteering for the NAACP, to be sure, but I have to think it would be better than seeing an old lady weep into Matt Lauer's lap for 10 minutes.
Back in 1985, in an interview for the civil rights documentary Eyes on the Prize, the late Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth spoke to one of the mistakes he and other organizers had made when initially trying to defeat racism in the United States. "We thought that you could just shame America," he said. "Say, 'Now, America, look at your promises. Look at how you treated your poor Negro citizens. You ought to be ashamed of yourself.' But you know...you can't shame segregation. Rattlesnakes don't commit suicide. Ball teams don't strike themselves out. You gotta put 'em out."
In other words, when it comes to killing bigotry, effecting real change means one must put in real, complex, and dogged work, work many prefer to eschew in favor of making fun of Paula Deen, watching her blubber mindlessly about "those without sin" on morning shows, and depriving her of sponsorship deals.
I think today Paula Deen is sorry she ever said the word "nigger." But I remain unconvinced that she doesn't still sometimes look at black people and think they would look cute in white coats and tap shoes at a down-home Georgia weddin'. I'm glad that we got another racist off our TVs and our hams, I suppose. I'm just not so sure we've gained any ground when it comes to getting racism off our earth.
[Image by Jim Cooke, photo via Getty]