Paula Deen lived by the cleaver and she died by the cleaver. The southern chef skyrocketed to fame and fortune based on a caricature. She provided a basket full of Southern belle styled “y’alls” heavily coated with butter and sugar, harkening back to a time where that heapin’ helpin’ hospitality was comfort food for the national consciousness; the nation ate it all up and fell into its post-meal stupor, sleepy, satisfied and feeling a bit guilty for overstuffing.
Then, surprise-surprise, scratch the surface of that shiny southern portrayal, and lo and behold there is some ugly stuff. The more than 100 pages of legal transcripts, in which she hoisted herself on her own petard, are an eye-popping read. Deen, the supposedly savvy businesswoman, knows nothing about employment laws, workplace decorum, professional relationships or, frankly, decency. She tacitly condones men watching pornography in the workplace with female subordinates. She says it is okay to use the “n-word” for jokes, but not in a “mean” way.
Time and again the problems of racial, sexual, and homophobic harassment and discrimination happening at her brother’s restaurant (owned by Deen) were brought to her attention, and she chose to ignore them and blame others, enabling these practices to continue. Even when she hired a company to do a workplace audit, she refused to listen to their findings because people “out to get her and her brother” supposedly had the investigator’s ear.
Deen has become a lightening rod for the country because she represents – in one bite-sized portion – the one thing so many in the country do not want to talk about, let alone acknowledge or confront: racism. One of Deen’s own stories may hold a few clues for the firestorm. She went to a restaurant “in Tennessee or North Carolina or somewhere” that was fashioned after an antebellum plantation. All the servers were black men and Deen fell in love with the whole idea of being surrounded in elegance, while being served by black men in antebellum costume. She wanted to bring that plantation-style setting to her brother’s wedding.
Call it the “Gone With the Wind” phenomena: the idea that you can celebrate a culture built on slavery without mentioning the slave part. Denial is more than a river, as the song goes. The brutal, twisted, and oppressive racial dynamics that come with a system built on white supremacy surrounds and affects all of us everyday. Like the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, racism too is a pollutant with a structure, origin, cause, and effect. Deniers whether of climate change or of racial inequality endanger humanity.
Deen reduces racism to what’s in one’s heart, which pretty much is what most people think too. Particularly white people, who don’t face the sharp edge of racial oppression on a daily basis, and can sometimes be perpetrators of supremacy, it is easier to reduce racism to personal attitudes, instead of the complex system of attitudes, beliefs, policies, and practices rooted in historical and present day social-political and economic conditions.
Study after study show whites are less inclined to see structural barriers that African Americans (and other people of color) face than those who face barriers. Such magical thinking – that racism is based on personal attitudes – is like walking into a house and noting the musty odor of mold, and choosing to use an air freshner to cover it up instead of looking for the root of it, perhaps in a faulty structure or cracked pipe.
Deen’s denial, however, is not limited to racism. It extends to other issues, like the health effects of a cooking ideology that encourages millions of people to slather on that butter and use Coca Cola, consequences be damned.
While Deen enabled her brother to be accused of being the worst boss ever, who enabled Deen to be such a well-known icon of southern mythology? Just a few big corporate names like Random House, Walmart, Food Network, Smithfield, and Novo Nordisk, to name a few. Many of these giants have more than a few cases of racial and sexual discrimination against them. Their interests aren’t in bringing about racial or gender equality. Deen, a white woman from humble beginnings, fit a corporate image of the new South, without any of that old South slavery-Jim Crow-lynching baggage. They all became hucksters, filling their coffers while filling Americans’ minds and stomachs with processed garbage.
But some knew that a fraud was being perpetrated. Deen’s style is “almost like a spoof of Southern cooking,” one white southern chef told The New York Times; she “did not invent the hush puppy,” a black chef said in that same article. “I wish the Food Network would call me. I could show them a few things about the real South,” another black chef said, who also expressed sympathy for Deen.
Black people – enslaved and free – have contributed mightily to the creation of Southern cuisine and – one might add – to who gets to eat it and where, whether at a lunch counter or five-star restaurant. Native American, Spanish, Cuban, Mexican, French, and Vietnamese are among the many contributors to the region’s cuisine, like a globalized, ever evolving, stone soup. Reportedly, Deen never credited these contributions.
“There is another America,” that “Southern Patriot” Anne Braden once said, urging people to choose an anti-racist path. “You do have a choice. You don’t have to be a part of the world of the lynchers. You can join the other America.” She also said, “The first task of whites in these struggles is to be vocal and visible.” Good advice for all who are weary of the corporate caricatures, fraud and hypocrisy, and yearn for a more democratic society. Struggling against racism is a key ingredient towards creating one.
Photo: This meme was created after it became public – through a drug endorsement deal -that Paula Deen had been diagnosed with diabetes three years prior. Critics accused Deen of opportunistically keeping her diabetes a secret. Deen said she “chose not to share it.” (via diabetesmine.com)