You knew Paula Deen was in serious trouble when the celebrity chef turned for help to the Rev. Jesse Jackson. He’s still the go-to guy for celebrities in dire need to patch things up after breeches of racial etiquette.
“I’ve had wonderful support from Rev. Jackson,” she said in a tearfully apologetic interview with Matt Lauer on NBC’s “Today Show” Wednesday, a week after news broke of her admission in a videotaped deposition for a discrimination suit that she had used the “N-word” racial slur in the past.
Fallout from that revelation and other racial remarks began to unravel the celebrity chef’s food and media empire with breathtaking speed. The Food Network dropped her two shows, and a parade of major corporations have cut business ties from her and her products.
But the Rev. Jackson, who has stirred up more than a few racial controversies of his own over the years, stepped up to defend Deen. She shouldn’t become a “sacrificial lamb” to the cause of racial tolerance, he told Associated Press. If she is willing to acknowledge mistakes and make changes, he said, “she should be reclaimed rather than destroyed.”
I’ll go even further. I think Deen should be thanked, not just spanked, by those who believe as I do in the value of candid racial dialogue. Americans don’t like to talk enough about race across racial lines, partly out of fear of offending someone. Deen apparently was too ignorant to be afraid.
While being questioned on May 17 in a discrimination lawsuit, the 66-year-old celebrity cook, Food Network star and Savannah restaurant owner was asked if she has ever used the N-word, Deen boldly replied, “Yes, of course.” Although she also said, “It’s been a very long time,” her bold “Yes, of course” probably was not the most diplomatic way for a defendant in a discrimination suit to respond.
Lisa Jackson (no relation to the reverend), former general manager of Uncle Bubba’s Oyster House, one of Deen’s Savannah restaurants, filed the $1.2 million lawsuit in March 2012 against Deen and her brother, Earl W. “Bubba” Hiers, over allegations of racial and sexual harassment involving racial slurs and off-color jokes.
The federal lawsuit contends among other charges that racial slurs and jokes about women, Jews and blacks were common at Uncle Bubba’s. Questioned about racial and ethnic jokes, Deen said in the video deposition and on the “Today Show,” ”I can’t determine what offends another person.” By now I hope she has a better idea.
Her cross-cultural cluelessness shows itself vividly in the video of her appearance at the New York Times last October, in which she cheerfully observes, “I feel like the South is almost less prejudiced because black folks played such an integral part in our lives. They were like our family.” Integral, indeed.
Since my family is rooted in the South, I’ve been hearing that “like our family” line since I was a kid. I’m Deen’s age, 66, but I have a slightly different view of what life was like in the 1950s from the black side of the “white” and “colored” signs. Movies like “The Help” offer a pretty good recreation.
Deen offered a hint of that separate world, although not in the way she might have meant, when she pointed to a dark backdrop on the Times’ stage to illustrate how her long and trusted driver, bodyguard and assistant, Hollis Johnson, is as “black as that board.”
“Come out here, Hollis,” she adds, looking offstage. “We can’t see you standing against that dark board.”
With that, she reminded me of some of my white dormitory friends in college who thought they were, oh, so clever every time the lights went out and they said, “Smile, Clarence, so we can see you!” Why, I wondered aloud, do white guys always think they’re the first to think of that joke?
My classmates have learned better since then, I hope. Deen still appears to be learning.
Email Clarence Page at firstname.lastname@example.org.