Paula Deen story dishes up Southern food for thought

 

Now we know that Paula Deen has used the N-word.

Was it a bad thing? Absolutely. Am I up in arms about it? Not really.

As a child of the Deep South, I am not surprised that some white people like to sit around with like-minded friends and make jokes about African-Americans. Certainly these folks are not in the majority, but they also are not an anomaly.

The way they see it, using the N-word and cracking racial jokes are just a part of their Southern heritage. It’s how they were raised. Their grandparents did it and their mamma and daddy did it sitting around the supper table, so poking fun at minorities comes naturally.

In other words, ignorance has been passed down through generations.

At least, that’s what the 66-year-old Deen was suggesting in her deposition recently while defending herself in a discrimination lawsuit brought by a former employee.

Maybe she did inherit bigotry. But that’s her problem, not mine.

For all I care, she can knock herself out using the N-word in the privacy of her “bathroom/den combination,” as she called it in her deposition.

What I do I care about, though, is whether she allowed that bigotry to be carried over into the workplace. A former employee at Uncle Bubba’s Oyster House, a restaurant Deen co-owns with her brother in Savannah, Ga., claims that she did.

The former general manager says in a lawsuit filed against Deen and her brother Bubba that racial slurs, racist jokes and the viewing of pornography were common there. The woman, who is white, also says black staff members were required to use the back entrance and were not allowed to use a restroom assigned to customers, while white employees could.

Jabari Asim, an associate professor of writing, literature and publishing at Emerson College in Boston and editor of the NAACP magazine, “The Crisis,” says he’s afraid that the hoopla over Deen’s admission that she has used the N-word in the past could overshadow the serious allegations in the lawsuit.

“There’s no way to defend the reprehensible language she has used. And to use region and time as an excuse does not hold water,” said Asim, author of the book The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn’t, and Why. “The real issue here is her behavior, not so much the language.”

Southerners aren’t the only ones to use racial slurs, but it is easier for some folks in Dixie to try to rationalize it.

While the nation moved forward, people like Deen and Bubba chose to remain stuck in a time warp, paralyzed by dreams of a grandiose bygone era spoiled by the Civil War. The South might have lost the war, but these folks have yet to surrender.

For the most part, Savannah is a progressive, racially mixed city, where cobblestone streets, whispering willow trees and large antebellum homes exude Southern charm. It is easy for some people who were born during the segregation era to imagine they’re at Tara from Gone with the Wind in such a genteel city.

And when they need a good laugh, they just dig up old stereotypes from slavery.

With a hefty staff of African-Americans — some likely poor and uneducated Gullah-Geechees from the Lowcountry working in the kitchens of her down-home restaurants — I imagine there was never a shortage of comedic material for Bubba and his friends to use.

Many of my white friends in Chicago as well as in the South are appalled by such behavior. In their circles, people don’t make racial jokes. And if someone tried, it most certainly would not be tolerated.

But Deen and Bubba live in a different world, one where, according to her deposition, every man she has come in contact with has a racial joke.

“Most jokes are about Jewish people, rednecks, black folks. . . . They usually target . . . a group. Gays or straights, black, redneck, you know,” she said in the deposition. “I just don’t know what to say. I can’t, myself, determine what offends another person.”

Dahleen Glanton is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune.

©2013 Chicago Tribune

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