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.
Wife of one, Mom of two, Friend of many. My pronouns are she/her/hers.
This was beautifully written, and so totally perfect! I got a similar feeling about Deen’s apology – wanting to understand, but also thinking it was something she may not have thought of at all had it not all come to light.
Great insight, Paula! I have been struggling with my own feelings on the matter and she was raised in a culture that condoned or at least was silent about racial jokes, etc. I, too will look forward to what she does on the future as a measure if the person she has become. Thanks!
I have had mixed feelings about Paula Deen that started when she came forward with her diabetes to promote the company who was prepared to pay her handsomely for the insulin they were going to provide her (as if insulin was the cure). To that point, she continued to promote the heavy fat laden food to her loyal fans. I was disappointed in her.
This latest debacle started awhile back and has only recently made the mainstream media. The allegations against her brother are pretty intense….Paula only thought about her actions with the allegations of sexual and racist harassment when it affected her financial empire.
Paula has fallen from grace and I am no longer a fan.
Tamela Jasmann says
I have lived out West most of my adult life…but my childhood was spent mainly in the South. In my late 40s I made a move back South, NC to be exact – rural, small town NC. I was gob-smacked to learn that “the South” – in many ways – still fights a racial civil war in the 21st Century. This racial divide isn’t pronounced publicly – oh no, we ALL get along (hack, hack). It’s the private looks and whispers that let you know blacks don’t trust whites and whites don’t trust blacks. To be fair, the city-folk seemed to have progressed further along the equality line than rural folks but the absolute HATE expressed privately is disturbing. I moved back West exactly one year later. We have our own racial wars with illegal aliens but the black/white divide is not as great here. I remember when I originally moved West in ’81 and in my first job, my supervisor was black. My friends back East were shocked I’d be willing to work for a black woman but in all honesty, she taught me some life lessons I still hold true today. I learned not to close myself off to people just because of their skin color – there are too many other good reasons to reject someone…but skin color. Yeah, I’m over that one! Age should be no excuse for denigrating anyone – good for Paula for admitting her “sin”, now let’s see if she changes her ways.