Because here’s the thing about white people: They hate dealing with race — are incapable of dealing with it, in large part. Have you ever seen a white CEO stand in front of a black audience and tell them how much he “cares about diversity”? I have. It’s excruciating.
What better penance could there be than to have Deen wake up on Monday morning and stand in front of a camera and open her mouth and do her job? Because she’s become far more than just a TV chef. She has set herself up as a voice for all that is good about the South. And despite its sins, one thing the South can rightly be proud of is its food.Southern food is a big bucket of deep-fried awesome. Who doesn’t crave a heaping helping of biscuits and gravy or shrimp and grits?
Southern food also perfectly captures the complexities and contradictions of how race is lived in that part of the country. When you find moments of genuine interracial community in the South, it’s usually over a plate of red beans and rice or a huge slab of ribs, people sharing favorite recipes or swapping stories about whose grandfather liked to cook this or that; food may be the thing poor Southern whites and poor Southern blacks have most in common.
But Southern cuisine also gives fuel to some of our worst racial stereotypes. Fried chicken and watermelon and all the rest of it. And the politics of food, of who serves what to whom, the very thing that got Deen in trouble with her antebellum dinner party, is ever present. Whether it’s whites refusing to serve blacks at the lunch counter or blacks in dinner jackets serving the soup course to whites, you could write a whole book on the power dynamics of putting a plate on a table below the Mason-Dixon Line.
Food and race and the South — it’s a minefield. And I would love to see Paula Deen walk through it on national television. She knows exactly where she screwed up and why, and to have to face that with the whole country watching? Just imagine it: with no pause for “reflection,” with the eyes of a multiracial nation upon her and “the N-word” like a yoke around her neck, Paula Deen standing in front of a big Sunday spread of buttermilk fried chicken, barbecue brisket, collard greens, corn bread, fried okra, pigs’ feet and sweet potato pie. Let her stand there and explain where all that good food came from and how her mama’s housekeeper used to make the best green bean casserole and see if she can learn how to do it without putting her racist foot in her mouth. Then, when she screws up, make her go back and do it again. That would be a punishment that fits the crime. It would make her a better person. It would make our National Conversation About Race a conversation worth having. And it would also make fantastic television.
Tanner Colby is the author of “Some of My Best Friends Are Black: The Strange Story of Integration in America.”