Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Paula Deen, Race Relations, and the Southern Plantation Culture

I do not know Paula Deen, I have never seen her show, I have never read any of her books. On the other hand, I do not cook unless it is microwavable, I am a vegetarian, and I do not watch the Food Network or QVC. I knew very little about the 66-year old Deen until the recent controversy about racist statements she admits to have made 20 years ago. In a country that seems to easily forgive past mistakes, including an governor's adulterous affair supported by public money for trips to Argentina, what is the big deal about casual references made 20 years ago by an old lady who grew up in a Southern slave state prior to the civil rights movement?

For me, if it was simply that, I too would likely easily forgive, rolling my eyes and exchanging knowing looks with other under-40 year olds at the quaint racism of the elderly. However, it is not simply a 20-year old statement. There have been more recent examples of this larger pattern, as well as her broader response to these old statement. Take, for instance, the recent lawsuit by her former employees alleging racial discrimination. Deen is innocent until proven guilty, so employment discrimination proper is yet to be determined. But statements contained in the complaint speak to the broader narrative that surrounds the mystique of an older, racist South that clearly seems to continue to infuse Deen's psyche. The plaintiff references the following discussion with a wedding planner from 2007:

"I want a true southern plantation-style wedding." Asked by Ms. Jackson what type of uniforms she preferred servers to wear, Paula Deen stated, "Well what I would really like is a bunch of little niggers to wear long-sleeve white shirts, black shorts and black bow ties, you know in the Shirley Temple days, they used to tap dance around."
Perhaps she simply imported language from her girlhood, and in her excitement about the vision for the wedding uniforms, failed to self-censor, as we all sometimes do in a moment of emotional exuberance. Inappropriate, but by itself, perhaps excusable, if an isolated incident. We do not know the broader context of the conversation, except that Ms. Jackson expressed dismay and disapproval at the suggestion.

Let us assume these incidents were rarities, and her public behavior has generally been exemplary, other than contributing to the skyrocketing rates of heart disease and diabetes with her lard and sugar-based recipes. What seems to me more indicative of her beliefs about race are her recent, overt, conscious statements about her race comments. Take her interview with the left-leaning New York Times just last year:

“Back then, black folk were such an integral part of our lives,” said Deen. “They were like our family, and for that reason we didn’t see ourselves as prejudiced.” She also called up an employee to join her onstage, noting that Hollis Johnson was “as black as this board” — pointing to the dark backdrop behind her. “We can’t see you standing in front of that dark board!” Deen quipped, drawing laughter from the audience.
The New York audience reaction itself is problematic, finding amusement in Deen’s race-laden remark. What is more damning is the fact that Deen does not seem to find the statement problematic, and makes it in the context of being asked by “Lefties” about her history of racially insensitive language. If she has a “spin” team, I would hope they would have encouraged her to approach the issue with gravitas and race-neutral language, not to infuse such discussions with racist jokes.

But certainly she does not perceive the remark as racist, or she would not have made it. It is that perception that, in my opinion, is more problematic than the remark itself—the failure to recognize the importance of race inequality that still subsumes our cultural practices, not to mention legal, political and economic practices. Keep in mind, I have a white friend, Natalie, who tells inappropriate jokes to lighten the mood when she gets anxious, and Deen’s statement sounds identical to statements Natalie would make. In fact, I have heard Natalie joke about how she can only tell her black friend is in an unlit room when he smiles and she can see his teeth. However, in this case, her black friend is her husband, not an employee, and she is saying that to close friends who share her vision of racial justice, not to an audience for whom is attempting to defend and explain her race-neutral position.

Take another example, not from Deen herself, but from her sons, defending their mother. Granted, they would be poor excuses for sons if they did not defend their mother and their family, so one expects neutral objectivity from them. What is interesting is not their support of their mother, but the language they use to support her. In a June 2013 joint interview of Bobby and Jamie, they make these separate statements:

"That is not her heart, it is certainly not the home we were raised in. We were raised in a family with love, and of faith, in a house where God lived. Neither one of our parents ever taught us to be bigoted towards any other person for any reason. This is so saddening to me, because our mother is one of the most compassionate, good-hearted, empathetic people you'd ever meet. ... Frankly, I'm disgusted by the entire thing, because it started out as extortion, and it became character assassination."

"We care very much about our community, I'm raising two boys right now, this is ridiculous, it's completely absurd to think there is an environment of racism in our business. It's really disrespectful to the people we work with, we have strong, educated men and women of character that have been with us for 5, 10, 15, 20 years. To think that they would allow themselves to be in this position is simply baloney. It’s ridiculous"

For Whites who grew up in the South, the Deen boys’ language sounds very positive. However, for Blacks, and younger Whites, the language is recognizably coded with phrases that signify not racial sensitivity and justice, but phrases that signify anchors to the perception of a genteel and noble Southern past, a past demolished by the perceived atheistic, anti-family, anti-tradition, liberal civil rights movement of the 1960s. In their defense of maternal non-racism, absent are statements about how she has worked for racial equality. Absent is their recognition of a pervasive and crippling history of racism in the United States, especially in the South, and specifically in their home state of Georgia. If their goal was to defend that their mother was not a racist, such affirmative statements would seem to be required to support such a narrative.

Rather, the references to the importance of family and community were mentioned by both. Who would believe that a pro-family, pro-community parent could possibly be a racist?! The notion seems ridiculous to them. Strike that—not “seems,” since they clearly state that the notion is ridiculous. Similarly, they refer to their family's Christian faith. Again, the notion that good Christian folk could be racist is an absurdity to them. Besides, their mother is compassionate, who hires educated staff of good character. Her own statements about how "black folk were such an integral part of our lives,... they were like our family," import the paternalistic belief that Whites and Blacks were equally satisfied and benefiting from the structures of inequality, and that there was mutual love between them.

The problem with the Deen boys’ language, and Ms. Deen's, is that it is the same language commonly used by racists to defend this racist, Southern Plantation culture. Race relations in the South, and the broader old Southern culture, have long been understood as framed by faith, respect for tradition, respect for hierarchy, good-heartedness, and strong character. Very little of the internal narrative of the pre-civil rights movement White Southerner is characterized by a recognition of “hatred” or even “antagonism” for Blacks. Jason Sokol, historian at University of New Hampshire, began his academic career with an insightful book on White Southern culture, titled, “There Goes My Everything” (Vintage, 2006). In it, he interviews older Whites from the South, who self-narrate their experiences of the transformation of their own lives, and the South, from before and after the civil-rights movement. In it, Sokol documents a pre-civil rights worldview that hangs together on many of the ideas encapsulated by the Deen boys’ language as they defend their mother.

For example, the issue of religion, which many today perceive as a stalwart defending racial freedom and equality of all people, has not always been so, and still acts as a lens through which to defend racial (and gender) inequality in parts of the South. Churches in both the North and the South long used the Bible to vigorously defend the practice of slavery, and even after slavery was making its legal way out, several Bible verses were deployed to scold “slaves to obey their masters,” and to encourage Blacks to remember their place.

Southern Whites perceived the structures of the South benefitted both Blacks and Whites, and that all race groups were satisfied with their stations in life. They also believed that they solely understood appropriate race relations, and that “their Blacks” were happy with the way the South treated them, presuming they were “good Blacks” who weren’t trying to disrupt the social order. One representative interviewee says, “We in the South are the ones in the whole United States who love the colored people. … Down here we understand the colored people” (44). However, while Sokol demonstrates that the common perception that “southern whites possessed care, affection, and even love for blacks,” Southern Blacks themselves have lived experiences that demonstrate that “the whites gravely missed the point. In a society democratic only in name, shot through with discrimination and layered with inequality, emotional bonds were never enough” (113).

Many of the Southern Whites that Sokol interviewed were remorseful about the previous ways of life embodied in Southern culture, even though they often still identified it as having respectable traditions, filled with faith, family, and mutual benefit to all members of that society, specifically in contrast to the "liberal North." Sokol’s study was not to “expose” contemporary racism, or investigate legal discrimination. We already understand that history, and recognize that continued present, especially in the South. Sokol’s purpose was to explore the internal narratives of the older Southern White, to understand both their pre-civil-rights consciousness, and to understand their transformation post-civil-rights. As I listen to Deen’s explanations of her racial beliefs, and her sons’ defense of their belief of their non-racist family life, I was reminded of the following extended passage from Sokol (58-59).

“In our inmost [ears], we knew we were wrong. And so… we didn’t talk about justice, we talked about love. But love unsupported by justice becomes sentimentality.” … It was another weight that white southerners had long balanced. Many thought themselves sincere when they said they cared deeply for blacks. But it was a care based upon inequality, rooted in oppression, layered with discrimination, and willfully blind to those very facts. Natives of the east Tennessee town of Clinton believed that race relations had always been good. According to a Newsweek background report, “What the ‘good’ relations seem to amount to is absence of trouble and submissive acceptance of the part of Negroes of a social system that excludes them from everything except menial job opportunities in the community, occasional friendly exchanges on the streets, access to downtown stores, and the annual exchange of church choirs.” Whites interpreted lack veneers of deference as actual friendship.
The Deen family sins, from the perspective of Northerners, and us under 40-year olds, is that they seem to believe that faith, family, and good-heartedness are enough to create moral goodness. What they seem to fail to recognize, that others in the South have begun to learn, is that racial justice is equally as important as good-heartedness, and the latter does not automatically create (or negate the need for) the former. Rather, it takes repentance from former ways of life, including those carried from previous generations, and it requires a recognition of the fact that radical inequalities still exist between Blacks and Whites—legal, political, and economic---and that these problems cannot be solved by good-heartedness, but by actively living the change and supporting policies of justice. These goals are likely not achieved by glamorizing the Southern plantation culture, such as, by specifically desiring to re-create it in a wedding, where “a bunch of little niggers… [in] white shirts, black shorts and black bow ties… tap dance around.”

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