My grandfather owned a bar in small town Bible Belt North Florida. It is the only vocation of his that I ever knew (earlier in his life he had owned a filling station). The bar had a front section and a back section. Until he died in 1982, black customers did their business in the back, white customers in the front. Although the word “colored” has been painted over on the building that housed the bar, the paint job wasn’t complete and you can still see the word “colored” faintly where it was painted on the back of the building.
I don’t remember exactly what I was told about that arrangement when I was a little kid, but I think it was something along the lines of “everyone’s okay with that; it’s all they’ve ever known.”
Echoes of that “all they’ve ever known” knocked around in my mind this week in the wake the news that Paula Deen has been criticized for (and had her Food Network contract non-renewed for) revelations about a deposition in which she “admitted she had used racial epithets, tolerated racist jokes and condoned pornography in the workplace.”
I am 18 years younger than Ms. Deen, but having grown up down South, I think I know what the Paula Deen Enterprises statement issued Friday was getting at by saying, “During a deposition where she swore to tell the truth, Ms. Deen recounted having used a racial epithet in the past, speaking largely about a time in American history which was quite different than today….She was born 60 years ago, when America’s South had schools that were segregated, different bathrooms, different restaurants and Americans rode in different parts of the bus. This is not today.”
In an apology, Ms. Deen said:
“I want to learn and grow from this. Inappropriate and hurtful language is totally, totally unacceptable. I’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way but I beg you, my children, my team, my fans, my partners, I beg for your forgiveness. Please forgive me for the mistakes that I have made.”
I am not a Paula Deen expert by any stretch of the imagination. I think the thing this situation makes me reflect upon, however, is the question of who we are when the cameras are off.
I can only imagine how perplexed Mrs. Deen must be by some of this. She said and did what multitudes of other people say every day in private conversations. and forwarded email chains. As her enterprises grew and people were depending on her for a living, her life must have been filled with a combination of delight at sharing her passion for food, power at the ability to make so much money doing it, and pressure to be responsible for the careers of so many.
But when Victor Blackwell tweeted this question today:
I found my opinion summarizing itself rapidly in my response:
Ultimately, what matters is not what we say when our back is against the wall, when we are in danger of losing money, notoriety, or acclaim. What matters is who we are when there is no one to answer to except whatever God we choose to worship and whoever’s eyes we happen to be looking into.
I think the thing that is disconcerting to me is my intuition that public apologies like this are like that poor paint job over the word “colored” on my grandfather’s former bar. I’ll never know Paula Deen personally so I suppose the true end of the story will never be known to me.
Ultimately, there are some choices in life that can’t be painted over; the disquieting disregard and disrespect of others is too deep seated. Sometimes you have to raze the building and start over. I wonder what Ms. Deen is going to do.