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Reflections on Paula Deen

June 24, 2013

This post is about sensitive matters. It’s Chris’s opinion, not those of FWA, its members, or business partners. Standard disclaimers apply.

This post is not about Paula Deen. You may have opinions one way or the other about what she said and what the Food Network did and about the use of highly saturated fats in cooking. But there’s a bigger issue in the whole Paula Deen saga that unwound last week.

During her deposition, she was asked if she ever used a certain racial slur–which is not appropriate for this forum–or told racial or ethnic jokes. Her answer, summarized was, of course.

That would be my answer, too. For a lot of reasons. The first reason was, where I grew up, we had a law that you weren’t allowed to go outside in the winter time naked. This law had nothing to do with morality and public nudity. It’s simply that the part of the country where I grew up is so white, that you could lose people who did that.

It’s not an excuse for the things that were said and the jokes that were told, but it’s a reason. The use of those words wasn’t less hurtful then, but the view of things was different. There are a number of things I would have said then, that I wouldn’t say–or think–now.

But, I still enjoy humor that pokes fun at ethnic, gender, and even racial differences. For instance, if you want a racial joke, just watch me try to dance. I’m not even as good as Bill Cosby.

And, there’s Mel Brooks…

And, of course, Archie Bunker…

The difference isn’t the joke–Mel Brooks, Bill Cosby, and Carroll O’Connor hardly qualify as racists. It’s in the intent of the joke. And I can honestly say that while my appreciation for certain types of ethnic humor hasn’t faded, my appreciation of mean-spirited ethnic humor meant to dehumanize has. You live in this world, and you learn. What seemed appropriate in 1982–when I personally made my most egregious slip in terms of a certain ethnic slur–wasn’t appropriate.

But when context becomes unimportant–when the word or idea becomes so offensive that intent isn’t relevant any more–we lose. We lose because there are periodic battles to keep Huckleberry Finn from being censored from school libraries. And because shows like All in the Family, which basically showed one man’s struggle to deal with and ultimately integrate societal changes, can’t get made today.

As a writer, when certain types of content become off-limits in spite of content–when satire becomes as inappropriate as the inappropriate behavior it’s calling out–we all lose.

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6 Comments
  1. June 24, 2013 7:54 am

    I don’t know the whole story. I’ll have to read up on it, but if the uproar is about something she’d done in the past, then to me that’s ridiculous. In this country, you have to give jobs to convicted criminals in the name of all fairness, but let someone use a derogatory word in a culture less sensitive than today and you fire them?

  2. June 24, 2013 8:12 am

    I am a native Floridian. Born and raise in the panhandle of Florida, which some consider more south Georgia or Alabama in its attitudes. I am also a black woman of a certain age so my take on the whole Paula Deen situation is in part based on my life experiences.

    I think the thing we must first remember is that the deposition that has been quoted time and time again was part of a case that was brought against Deen’s restaurant on the part of ex-employees regarding racial and sexual harassment from her brother not her in particular. The point that has to be made is that the attitudes of the past or even a individuals personal attitudes/biases has no place in the professional work environment. Paula Deen should have ensure that the work environment of her restaurant was free from any form of harassment in spite of her personal feelings.

    Lastly, I don’t think there is any danger of certain topics being off limit. Especially books written by “white” people talking about southern life featuring blacks (slaves, maids, criminals, etc.) ever not being written. From Huckleberry Finn, Gone with the Wind, Uncle Toms Cabin to The Green Mile, or The Help the publishing industry publishes those types of books.

    Diversity in writing/publishing is something that has not come to pass just ask any writer of color, or writer of GLBTQ material. The selections in the bookstores of these sections are very slim and don’t cross genres. I think we as an profession/industry already lose out because we focus to much on our personal world view instead of being more inclusive.

  3. June 24, 2013 8:13 am

    Reblogged this on Sex and Relationships and commented:
    I am a native Floridian. Born and raise in the panhandle of Florida, which some consider more south Georgia or Alabama in its attitudes. I am also a black woman of a certain age so my take on the whole Paula Deen situation is in part based on my life experiences.

    I think the thing we must first remember is that the deposition that has been quoted time and time again was part of a case that was brought against Deen’s restaurant on the part of ex-employees regarding racial and sexual harassment from her brother not her in particular. The point that has to be made is that the attitudes of the past or even a individuals personal attitudes/biases has no place in the professional work environment. Paula Deen should have ensure that the work environment of her restaurant was free from any form of harassment in spite of her personal feelings.

    Lastly, I don’t think there is any danger of certain topics being off limit. Especially books written by “white” people talking about southern life featuring blacks (slaves, maids, criminals, etc.) ever not being written. From Huckleberry Finn, Gone with the Wind, Uncle Toms Cabin to The Green Mile, or The Help the publishing industry publishes those types of books.

    Diversity in writing/publishing is something that has not come to pass just ask any writer of color, or writer of GLBTQ material. The selections in the bookstores of these sections are very slim and don’t cross genres. I think we as an profession/industry already lose out because we focus to much on our personal world view instead of being more inclusive.

  4. June 24, 2013 10:58 am

    Diversity of what is allowed to be published has been increased by the advent of Kindle E-books and Amazon.com. No longer are the New York elitist gatekeepers in control. The thought police have been swept away, just like ABC, NBC, and CBS were swept away by Cable TV and Satellite TV stations. Today we have choices.

    Writers can write what they really want, and the market will decide whether their books are successful, no matter their politics or skin color. The word ‘no’ isn’t an arbitrary barrier anymore.

  5. Suzanna Crean permalink
    June 24, 2013 9:31 pm

    I sent a note to the Food Network saying I would no longer watch their network, nor would I renew my subscription to their magazine. I also sent Paula a note telling her to hang in there.

    I’m sick and tired of ethnic groups being offended, yet they can call white people dirty names, they can accuse us of racism at whim. When are we white people going to stand up for ourselves? I don’t even know what a racist is…but I think a lot of them voted for Obama just because of the colour of his skin. Now if that is not discrimination, what is?

    I am a native of the South and proud of it. I do not hate black people. In fact, I never heard the word “nigger” until I started school, and it was used by lower class white children. We of the middle and upper classes were taught better manners.

  6. Casey permalink
    June 25, 2013 8:48 pm

    I grew up in white suburbia, hanging onto middle class by the skin of our teeth. I don’t believe that racism knows class, in any sense of the word. Personally, I was taught from a very young age that discrimination, in any form, is wrong. I was taught to embrace the differences in culture, race, sexual preference, religion, because this is what makes our world a beautiful place. In my own personal experience, I’ve seen more hateful language and bigotry coming from those in the upper and middle class. I was also taught impeccable manners.

    As the article states, its about the intent of the joke. I don’t believe that any joke made to be malicious, harassing, or cruel is acceptable. However, in the excellent examples provided in the comedians above (Bill Cosby, etc.), you also can’t go out of your way to dance around the topic either. Where there is humor (well-intended humor) there is healing.

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