I’ve been thinking about the Paula Deen mess lately. As any number of previous posts here will suggest, I don’t have a lot of sympathy for her or her kind. At the same time, I grew up in the racist South like she did, and I see the situation in more nuanced terms than do her critics these past few days. While none of my insights let her off the hook, I do think there’s some value in them for those of us keen on fostering a more enlightened society.
Just how malicious Deen’s racism may or may not be I can’t say. Don’t know her. There are reports floating around that suggest she’s not as kind-hearted as her apologies would ask us to believe, and that may well be the case. Or she may simply be just another ignorant, albeit good-hearted cracker.
The thing that I’m pondering, though, begins with the question that apparently touched off this whole firestorm:
Have you ever used the N-word?
I’m trying to imagine how I’d answer that question if I were being deposed under similar circumstances. Have I used “the N-word”? Well, what do you mean? Have I spoken it aloud or written it down? Or do you mean have I used it against someone? And what time frame are we talking about? Most importantly, does it matter to you? If my mouth has, at any point in my life, uttered those two syllables, am I damned for eternity regardless of context or intent?
Yes, I have used the N-word. Wait – I fucking hate that euphemism. Yes, I have used the word “nigger.” Nasty word, no doubt about it, and I have used it in any number of cases in order to illustrate and emphasize just how ugly the emotions it denotes really are.
I have also used the term when mocking racists, imitating their stupidity in their own coarse, hateful language. Again, authenticity helps make the case.
So, back to my deposition. Have I used that word? Yes. Does that make me a racist? You hit the links above and decide for yourself. And if, after reading all that, you conclude that using the word in those ways makes me a racist, then you’re a fucking moron.
Words have power. They convey intent. They embody, reinforce and project ancient social codes, assumptions, ideologies, values, biases. Words have histories and subtleties and they frequently say more than the speaker even realizes. Vocabulary is a negotiated space, where speaker meets audience, each with their own filters in place, and meaning is transacted through all kinds of noise that one, or the other, or both might be completely unaware of. Words are understood and they’re frequently misunderstood.
Language is perhaps the greatest technology ever devised, a tool that soars humanity to its greatest heights. It also enables a level of cruelty and destruction that our less evolved animal friends can’t begin to dream of.
The epithet in question is so packed with negative energy that we have decided it can’t be said aloud. Which is noble in intent, because it’s a word that hurts people. However, the downside is that when we impart such grave taboo status upon it, we give it more power and exponentially amp up its potential for harm. I, quite simply, don’t believe in making hurtful language worse than it already is. I refuse to mystify it. Like every other dark impulse in the collective human soul, I believe it’s best dealt with when we drag it out in the light. Thus illuminated, we can destroy its power over us and render it powerless.
And honestly – does saying “the N-word” instead of, you know, saying the N-word, does that somehow make racism better? Is the thing itself therefore less prevalent or less evil? Or does the shadow grow larger every time we shrink from it, every time we speak like silly children afraid to say the name of a bogeyman out loud?
Yes, I said it – every time I hear somebody say “the N-word” they seem a bit sillier to me than they did the second before. It trivializes a serious issue, it emboldens the bad guys, and it patronizes African-Americans, because clearly they aren’t intelligent enough or strong enough or mature enough to confront the insult head-on.
So yes, I have used “nigger.” And while I’m ashamed of it, when I was a kid in the racist, rural South I used it in its worst form. I have also plead guilty to the charge and devoted a great deal of energy to the challenge of making sure that one day, hopefully, other children won’t grow up ignorant the way I did.
If I’m Paula Deen, and if I answer this way, do I still have a show on the Food Network?
Not all racism is the same. None of it is good and it all needs to be eradicated, but in point of fact the basic ignorant racist (“let’s dress them up like lawn jockeys”) isn’t as bad as the violent white supremacist lynch-em-all variety (and there are way more of this crowd out there than I’d like). It’s all related, of course – all forms of prejudice are rooted in ignorance and the “good-hearted” variety provides social cover for the more virulent strains.
Again, I’m not naïve and I’m damned sure not offering an apologia for Paula Deen and/or her ilk. I’m just observing that there are nuances to be considered, especially when discussing those who grew up in a racist culture before the Civil Rights movement began making some initial headway in the general direction of social justice.
Let me tell you a story. I grew up in the very white Northeast corner of Davidson County, North Carolina. In my first grade class of about 25 there was precisely one minority, a black girl named Juatina. As fate would have it, she sat right behind me. Each morning we’d have a ten-minute break period where we’d all get chocolate milk and break out a little snack that our parents (in my case, grandparents) had packed for us. I always brought Fig Newtons, which I love to this day.
Except it wasn’t quite all of us. One morning I happened to look around and noticed that Juatina didn’t have anything. No milk, no cookies, nothing. I’d never really talked to her because she was, you know, one of them, but something in me instinctively felt bad for her. Here was this poor girl in the cheapest dress you could buy and she had to sit there every day and watch all the white kids with their snacks and chocolate milk.
So I gave her a couple of my cookies.
When I got home, I told Grandmother and Granddaddy about Juatina, and they apparently felt as badly for her as I did. So from that point on they packed twice as many Fig Newtons so I could share, and they also sent extra money along with me each week so the girl could have milk each day.
This – and you knew this was coming – made me a “nigger lover.” Which I didn’t like. But I guess it bothered me less than one of my classmates not having something for break.
This story tells you something important about the innate compassion of my grandparents. The other thing you need to know is how racist they were, especially Granddaddy. Every time he’d see a black in a TV show, he’d start ranting about how “they got to be everywhere now.” He switched to the Republican Party as part of the fallout from the Civil Rights Act. He voted for George Wallace. In the same way that “dog” was the word for the furry, four-legged animals he used to hunt with, “nigger” was the word for people of African descent. And I don’t even want to think about what would have happened had a black family tried to move into our neighborhood or join our church.
He managed black employees and got along wonderfully with them. They liked him and, as odd as it has to sound after that last paragraph, he genuinely liked them. He related to them at a personal level in a way that was wholly at odds with his social and political views on them as a collective. In doing so, I suspect he was like a lot of white folks of his generation. And, for that matter, of Paula Deen’s generation.
As I noted above, we’re hearing reports that Paula was perhaps less innocent in her intent than her apology suggested, and at the minimum, her “dress them up in white coats” fantasy reflects a mindset that our society, in 2013, simply cannot tolerate. We get it – you grew up ignorant. But that doesn’t excuse staying that way. And she’s going to pay a huge price for that racism. With luck these events will motivate her to learn and grow. Hopefully it will also send a clear message to other closet Scarlett O’Haras out there that these behaviors and beliefs aren’t acceptable. The marketplace of ideas, working as intended, etc.
That said, at the human level the issue isn’t 100%, if you’ll forgive me for putting it this way, black and white. It’s tempting and satisfying to demonize the crackers, and they probably deserve no better. But our goal is to rid the society of ignorance and prejudice, and the better we’re able to understand how the odd “compassionate racist” dynamic of my grandparents, the better we’re going to be able to address the problem in ways that are truly productive.
One final note. I’ve been to Deen’s restaurant in Savannah, and it was really disappointing. If you like artery-clogging Southern-fried goodness, I can probably find you 10 or 15 places in my own hometown that are better.