Gerald Britt: Nonchalance over Deen’s use of racial slur exposes real issue
Celebrity cook Paula Deen’s admission that she’d used a hateful racial slur in reference to black Americans is not a particularly shocking revelation. Her transparency during a deposition was explained like so in a statement released by Paula Deen Enterprises: “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.”
I think there is a better use of time than finding ways to visit rage upon those who, in the past, used hate speech for which they are now ashamed.
More disturbing is that, more recently, Deen thought nothing of suggesting that blacks dress as slaves to work an antebellum-themed wedding. Did she give any consideration to how this would demean her employees and some of her fans?
More disturbing still is some of the public reaction to the controversy. Some suggest that those offended by the use of the slur are being “overly sensitive.” Others say that the N-word is just a word, possessing only the power people give it.
There is no such thing as “just a word.” Words matter. Words have meaning and power. Words start wars. Words move people to laughter or tears. Words evoke images in the minds of the people who speak and those who listen.
If words don’t matter, why do we read books or listen to speeches or song lyrics? Why are playwrights and authors paid millions of dollars if words don’t matter?
Deen used that word, she says, having lived in a culture where its usage was common. But it’s a word intended to dehumanize and objectify Americans whose history and heritage included slavery and segregation. It was a spiked weapon that so marginalized black Americans that it was used to justify injustices, diluting the venomous cruelty of the most heinous acts of brutality.
The word normalized the humiliation of segregated schools, lunch counters, neighborhoods, employment and transportation. The word consigned an entire race to a category of otherness and deemed its membership unnecessary to consider with any regard or respect. No matter one’s age, gender, service in defense of our nation or contributions to art, literature or sciences, no one toward whom the word was directed was of any consequence.
Deen begs understanding because she was raised in a culture that tolerated such bigotry and humiliation as a cultural norm. So were those whose lives were broken by that humiliation and bigotry. There are people alive today who lost relatives and friends because of such cultural norms. There are those who remember and resent still how those norms scarred and scandalized our country.
What about the free speech argument? Freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from criticism, critique or consequence. The Food Network’s cancellation of Deen’s show is such a consequence. Freedom of speech doesn’t guarantee that you remain employed by sponsors dependent on a diverse consumer base. Whether excessive or not, the Food Network has the right not to employ someone with a penchant for insulting and offensive behavior.
Perhaps racism was less a factor and this was more about a Southern woman being insensitive, clueless and rude. Is it more acceptable to think that the culinary icon should be numbered among those too lazy to use more discreet language or too unimaginative to avoid unkind speech or employ degrading imagery to entertain wedding guests? When did boorishness become such a cherished right in our culture?
The nonchalance of some regarding this whole affair is downright disappointing.
Gerald Britt is vice president of public policy at CitySquare. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, and he blogs at changethewind.org.