The subtle racism of giving Paula Deen a pass

Today it was announced that diabetes drug-maker Novo Nordisk is dropping Paula Deen. It’s understandable that a diabetes drug-maker might not want to be linked to a spokesperson who has admitted to using the n-word. After all, blacks are twice as likely as whites to get diabetes. Keeping Deen on is like hiring Mel Gibson to sell menorahs.

But I can’t help but feeling like we’re missing an opportunity for an intersectional analysis of this situation.

Obviously using the n-word is wrong and at the very least has racist overtones (if I’m being exceedingly generous in an assumption of ignorance rather than intention). But her fan’s reaction — increased cruise ticket sales, skyrocketing pre-sales on her book — belies a more complex problem. Do people want to forgive or dismiss her transgression because she’s a “safe” older white woman? (But she’s so nice!) Are celebrity white women indirectly given a pass, like when Gwyneth Paltrow used the word in a tweet last year? (She was just joking!) Is this a symptom of how we give people of older generations a pass? (They can’t help it!)

Even other celebrities, like Martha Stewart and Rev. Al Sharpton, have come to her defense saying she shouldn’t be judged by what she did in the past. (Et tu, Al?) I think that’s a lovely sentiment when you’re talking about something less potent, like being caught watching porn at work. A bad choice. A youthful transgression, perhaps. But not something to be ashamed of forever. But some mistakes do stay with you. Some mistakes are a sign of your character. There are many people who are of the same generation as Paula Deen who have managed to un-learn certain racist social mores that were simply products of their time.

Why is it that for Deen fans (and some business partners, like QVC, JC Penney, and Sears) the backlash about using the n-word is the real problem? Are these the same folks who rushed to defend LA detective Mark Furhman’s past use of the n-word during the OJ trial? Furhman was (rightly) held up as a symptom of a corrupt police department with deeply entrenched institutionalized racism. But Deen? She’s harmless? Why don’t we ask the former employees who are suing her? I bet they felt pretty powerless against the owner of the restaurant where they worked, who just happened to also be a very famous TV personality with a long list of powerful friends.

There’s definitely some white privilege going on within and around discussions of the Deen incident. It’s important to question why we want to forgive some people for the very same thing that someone else did.

This has been a sore spot in music for decades. Eminem and Patti Smith have both used the n-word in lyrics. Some 35 years later, Smith’s “Rock N Roll N*****” is now considered an artistic work, by some. Meanwhile Eminem’s “Guess Who’s Back,” which eludes to some of the backlash he has received for lyrics and insults and doing “black music so selfishly,” is being used on commercials to hype the new Despicable Me 2 movie. (And I haven’t even touched Gwen Stefani’s Harajuku Girls controversy.)

And again, as the white woman in the room, I have to stand up and say that, no, I won’t give Paula Deen a pass on this. If she did only use the n-word once, as she has claimed, it still begs the question: Why? I have had times in my life when I was so angry I was vibrating. And I have certainly thrown out some expletive-laced rants here and there. But at no point in my life, no matter how angry or hurt or tired or hungry or drunk or [whatever] have I ever called someone the n-word. Not once in 36 years on this planet has the n-word ever come out of my mouth, with the exception of discussing it in a context like this. Even now, as I write about it, I will not actually spell-out the n-word. I won’t risk it being taken out of context for someone to later claim I used it in any way I did not intend.

The fact is, there’s only two ways to use the n-word. When you use it as a racist epithet. Or, when you are talking about how it is a racist epithet. And that’s what it is. For centuries, the n-word was used as a synonym for negro. It was short-hand to refer to a whole race of people. And it stung, and still stings, because the n-word is symbolic of destroying the humanity of people to use them as slaves. That’s why when slavery ended, the word remained. Racist white people saw that they could still hold power and oppress black people simply by using the word (among other things). Incidentally, this is why some black artists feel a power in reclaiming it, although that remains controversial, even among African Americans.

Listen up white people: The n-word is a tool of oppression, plain and simple. Full stop. You don’t get to use it.

And don’t give me this old song and dance about how Paula Deen is an old lady and a product of her time and of her geography (being from the South). I can remember when I was a teenager, my grandmother driving me through the small town near her farm, which was not all that far from Kentucky, and telling me about how, as a girl, she used to avoid certain parts because those were the “black parts” of town. But times changed, she told me. And even as a then-60-something year-old woman, my grandmother learned and changed her world view. Don’t tell me that Paula Deen does not know better. I took that drive with my grandmother in the mid-1990s, just after the Rodney King riots. We’ve all learned a great deal more about racism as a society since then.

Money and fame and power are no excuses for willful ignorance in an age of information. To give Paula Deen a pass is to give white privilege a pass. And as a white woman who is interested in dismantling white privilege and racism in our society, I can’t be complicit in that. In fact, as a white feminist, I think it’s my duty to call that shit out.

4 thoughts on “The subtle racism of giving Paula Deen a pass

  1. Thank you. You have expressed what I have been thinking.
    Most of the people that I have talked to seem to think I am overreacting like the sponsors that are dropping her like a hot potato. I have threatened to throw my father out of my house for using that word.

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