There was this Thanksgiving dinner once, at my aunt’s house in Houston. That morning we’d read an op-ed in the local paper about a school that still used corporal punishment. A white teacher had paddled a black student.
People were up in arms about the obvious racial overtones, and my grandmother, my sweet little 70-year-old Nanny, offered that she, too, didn’t think the white teacher should have paddled that black student, because she “wouldn’t want no [N word] beatin’ on her kids, neither.”
This occasioned lots of eye-rolling from the grandchildren and some gentle rebukes from our parents. Then someone passed the gravy.
As a typical Southern white family, we didn’t talk much about race. But whenever the older generation hauled it indelicately to the surface, it was an opportunity for us grandkids to see the ugliness our country would rather forget. For our parents it was a teachable moment, a chance to show us just how ugly prejudice is. In this way it was useful, instructive even, to have an old racist grandma at the dinner table.
Which brings us to Paula Deen. By now Deen’s crimes are well known. Among other offenses, she’s confessed to saying she wanted “a bunch of little [N word]” to dress up in antebellum finery for an Old South-style wedding feast she was throwing. As punishment, she has been stripped of her Food Network show and her endorsement deal with Smithfield Ham. In other words, polite society has tried to sweep her ugliness under the carpet where we can safely ignore it.
That’s exactly the wrong thing to do. Whether it’s Ross Perot’s “you people” or Don Imus’ “nappy-headed hos,” our reaction is always to ostracize the offender. But as perverse as it may seem, you cannot have a National Conversation About Race and not invite racists to be a part of that conversation.
Paula Deen represents a sizable constituency in this discussion. Witness the support for her among Southern whites, which has been unapologetic and loud. The morning after the Food Network dumped her, the line outside her Georgia restaurant snaked around the block. The “We Support Paula Deen” Facebook page has 376,558 likes and counting. Deen has the kind of mind that can look back on America’s Holocaust and see nothing but cotillions and hoop skirts. There’s little use in pretending that mentality doesn’t exist. All we do is push it back into the shadows where it waits to spill out again.
Paula Deen is America’s racist grandma, and we should treat her as such. Racist Grandma may be racist, but she’s also your grandma. You can’t just disown her.
And, contrary to what some might think, having a racist grandma isn’t entirely bad. No doubt there are many white families where racism is passed down generation to generation like some cancerous gene. But for others, seeing that gene and knowing you’re predisposed to it is a warning sign, a nagging reminder to take preventive measures for yourself. I say let’s push racist Grandma back to center stage and let her keep talking.
The counterargument to keeping Deen on the air is that someone with her repugnant views shouldn’t be rewarded with a lucrative television contract, and that’s fair as far as it goes. But Paula Deen is already a millionaire. She will remain a millionaire whether her TV show exists or not. And had the Food Network kept her on, Deen would hardly be the only racist in America with a decent job. Deen has a platform. That has value. It can be used for good or ill, but eliminating that platform helps no one. Should she be punished for her actions? Of course. Our racist grandmas may get a pass, but as a public figure, Deen has responsibilities. Which is precisely why she should be forced to remain on television.