Does Anyone Know What the Rules Are?

paula-deen-768By Peter Galuszka

The furor over celebrity chef Paula Deen’s use of a pejorative term against African-Americans is curious because it raises so many issues that still bubble in this country and still resonate in the South. They involved codes of appropriate behavior that are extremely hard to figure out.

Deen, whose buttery and sugary Dixie persona is a deliberate and highly profitable caricature, admitted in depositions that she said “N*&^%R” on occasions in the past and also told jokes about Jews and gays. For this admission, she was bounced off the Food Network and has sparked national debate about what is and isn’t socially correct.

It also comes, curiously, after some think tank types are trying to repaint the South as having morphed into a vibrant, enlightened place that left its baggage of racism and isolation at the station decades ago. This, at least, is what supporters of the “New South” (in its latest iteration) and “Richmond” such as blogger Jim Bacon want you to believe.

On Deen’s alleged slurs, let’s get this one out of the way right now. There is no question that there a triple, or quintuple, or whatever standards. When a hip hop artist says the “N” word or the “B” word, it is perfectly OK. When Quentin Taratino mixes up the “N” word along with “Samoan” during his foot massage scene during the 1994 classic film “Pulp Fiction” it is hysterically funny. But when a white-haired white woman born in 1947 in Georgia admits she used the “n” word long ago, it is cause for national revulsion.

Now I am not all for using the “N” word, finding it more vulgar than hateful, but I have to admit I have heard it before, make that a lot more, some years back.

It was in the South and it was in the era just after civil rights. Like Paula Deen, I had lived in the South, North Carolina specifically, in the 1950s when Jim Crow was in full swing, but I was really too young to remember much about it. When my Dad’s navy career took us to DC in the late 1950s, I remember blacks protesting their exclusion from the Glen Echo amusement park but I was still too young to understand the massive changes underway. Later, in high school in the DC area, I distinctly remember flying out of National Airport the day after Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and seeing downtown 14th Street in flames.

A few years after that, I was working at my first journalism job at a small daily newspaper in Eastern North Carolina. It was a lovely, friendly place and went through desegregation without too much frenzy. There had been some shootouts involving the Ku Klux Klan in a small fishing town called Swan Quarter a few years before, but most of the heavy duty opposition had moved to metro places like Charlotte where there were big legal battles against merging school systems to give inner city black kids more of a break.

To be sure, there were plenty of vestiges of the Old South where Deen grew up as in Carolina. The little paper ran a column every Thursday  titled, incredibly, “Among the Colored” that featured club news among mostly middle-aged African-American women in organizations with titles such as ‘Les Mesdames.” Obituaries of white folk went on the front page and black people were relegated to the back. Editors had started printing black weddings next to white ones on the society page unless, of course, the family of the white bride objected and checked the box “Do not run next to colored.”

This covered the period of roughly 1971 to 1973 when I worked off and on at the little paper when I was in college in Boston and from 1974 to 1975 where I worked there as a reporter, photographer, lab manager and layout specialist until a job came through at The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk. Many of my white, Southern contemporaries didn’t use the “N” word but others did, such as the dock builders I worked with for a while.

The ghosts of overt racism were fading into the background, but even in Virginia you could see them vaguely through the mist. When in Norfolk, I often used to go to DC on my days off and drove up country roads near West Point to beat traffic. There was still a derelict sign on an abandoned roadhouse proclaiming “Colored Only.”

I ended up leaving the South in 1983 and didn’t return except for family visits to North Carolina until 2000. The changes were subtle but impressive. The “N” word had really gone, biracial couples were more obvious and blacks had moved into the suburbs. My only real memory of the old times came when I was editing a state business magazine and put a picture of a black woman on the front page. It got snide comments from an ad manager, a Good Ole Boy from Southside who was, strangely, younger than I was.

I’d rather not get into the booster business of being an apologist for the South which still has its flaws. But I do find it hard to understand why Deen is being castigated so. I’m not that sympathetic since she does have a $17 million empire and is sure to get work. Her video apologies should work for her.

Looking around for explanations, I found this on Salon.com by Roxanne Gay:

“Writer Teju Cole succinctly identified why so many people are agog about the Deen revelations when he tweeted, “The real reason Paula Deen’s in the news is not because she’s racist, but because she broke the unwritten rules about how to be racist.”

The rules? I’m still unclear what they are. They seem to apply to a 66-year-old white woman from Albany, Ga., but not to a 38-year-old African-American hip hop star from Brooklyn. Go figure.

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9 responses to “Does Anyone Know What the Rules Are?

  1. Peter, a very thoughtful post. Nice job.

  2. Agree, a good article – and I can identify as I grew up in the South during the Civil Rights Era also.

    I’m wondering if the past history is just a convenient way to part company myself.

    I’m not that concerned with the long-past history of her actions and words but more recent and her current/ contemporary interactions with folks of color.

    Civil Rights picked up momentum and began changes when enough white people stood up for what was right and there were many, many whites who stayed back – did not want to “be involved in controversy” (or other reasons).

    A lot of white folks just went along with the tenor of the times and that’s, just the way it was. White people who stood up for blacks in those days were called “N”-lovers…. and thrown out of social clubs, shunned in social circles and in general treated as traitors. to their race.

    so it was not easy to take a stand as a white – even a little one.

    So I don’t know Paula Deen or much about her past but to me it seems awful convenient to cite long-ago things as a reason to part company now.

    just saying……

  3. LarryG,
    Point taken, but Paula Deen is only about about six years older than I. Can she be responsible? Let’s run a time line.

    1954. Brown vs. Topeka. Deen is seven years old.

    late 1950s. Eisenhower orders troops to Arkansas to force desegregation. Deen is maybe 10 or 11 years old.

    1963. Alabama church bombings and MLK’s “I’ve got a dream speech. Deen is 16 years old.

    Mid 1960s. George Wallace and Northern city riots. Deen is maybe 18 or 19 years old.

    MLK assassinated. Deen is 21 years old.

    Early 1970s. Racial tensions ease throughout South. Dean is maybe in her mid or late 20s.

    OK, So maybe she wasn’t a Freedom Rider. She would have been too young anyway. I was maybe 9 years old, too. How could she have been in a position to affect policy? Granted, lots of gutsy white people along with infinitely more black people did just that. But you can’t blame her. She was too young.

    So what do you want?

    Thanks

    PG

  4. the timeline is a good start. where in that timeline was she using the “N” word?

    just FYI – it WAS young people who DID supercharge the Civil Rights Era.

    re: ”

    1964: Three civil rights activists found dead

    The bodies of three civil rights workers missing for six weeks have been found buried in a partially constructed dam near Philadelphia, Mississippi.
    Agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation found the three young men – two white and one black man – about six miles from the town in a wooded area near where they were last seen on the night of 21 June.

    They were Michael Schwerner, aged 24, Andrew Goodman, 20, both from New York and James Chaney, 22, from Meridian, Mississippi. All were members of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) dedicated to non-violent direct action against racial discrimination.”

    Paula Deen was obviously involved in other pursuits….

    I’m NOT blaming people. I’m just saying that some white folks DID stand up for what was right and a whole bunch of us – did not.

    And some – were actively supporting the status-quo.

    As I said originally – I do not hold Paula Deen responsible for much of anything if her actions were all in the past and I do suspect a “convenience” issue with the Food Network – perhaps the proverbial straw since she was also not forthright in her Type II diabetes.

  5. Excellent piece, Peter.

    Those events you describe from those long ago times resonate with my experiences too, experiences gather from those from both near and far.

    And the heroes then were typically those who suffered the most, the subjects of rejection, scorn and abuse. Too often it’s the mark of the hero.

    And it’s for sure that these travesties and abominations remain strong and alive as ever, although their shape, form and substance forever shift into altogether new dresses and disguises worn by altogether new peoples and races and colors, as well as those who drove the old stories and inflicted them on everyone else, so today’s heroes who absorb today’s scorn and abuse are just as rare and precious as those heroes who have gone before.

    Let’s thank our lucky stars they keep coming, those who somehow march into their own destruction and that abuse we give all of those that dare to be different to save our futures from ignorance and random gratuitous evil.

  6. Good article. My sons and I have had more than a few conversations about Paula Deen lately.

    My take …

    1. The Food Channel is a business venture, not a legislative body or court of law. It’s decision was made on the basis of dollars and cents.
    2. Ms. Deen’s waning popularity was weighed against the potential lost revenue of viewers and advertisers leaving The Food Channel over her admitted comments.
    3. The Food Channel decided that they were likely to lose more money from lost viewers and advertisers than from spurned Paula Deen fans.

    I understand their decision from a financial perspective and don’t believe it represents a moral judgement.

    Ms. Deen made some very inappropriate and unfortunate comments. However, many of the same words can be heard on rap music stations and in barrooms to this day. Peter correctly wonder whether America can have two sets of morals and two sets of acceptable language.

    A friend of mine is a referee in youth football. At the start of each game he brings the coaches from both teams together. He tells them that he’ll throw any player out of the game who uses racially offensive language – regardless of that player’s race. He explains that the rules can’t change based on the race of the player.

    So far, no coach has objected to the approach (and no player has been thrown out of a game – presumably after being warned by their coaches).

    Either a word is inappropriate or it is not.

  7. Mostly on board with what DJ said about business but if this was the final straw then they should have considered the “timing” and/or cited the other additional issues.

    On the coach – does he also have rules for kids calling each other – other names such as f_g for a gay person or pu__y to indicate a guy is girlike?
    I’ve heard them all …….as I’m sure others have.

    the problem with the “N” word is that it’s not just a pejorative insult – it’s wounding historical root from a time when name-calling was the least of the worries of the people on the receiving end of that label. Once that word was issue from a white to a black – the black knew what it meant for the rest of their life – where they lived, went to school, shopped for food or ate in a restaurant, stayed in a motel – even drink from a fountain.

    That word basically defined the person using it rather than the person directed at.

    The race context is also important. The “N” word from one black to another does not have the same context – or is received in the same context as it is from a white to a black.

    but the question to whites is ” what were you doing during the Civil Rights Era?” is an attempt to encourage folks to think back about where THEY were in that time period RELATIVE to where they are NOW.

    and that’s the same standard I’d use with Paul Deen the person – no matter what the frickin Food Network thinks.

    Is this the same Paula Deen that was slinging that word way back when – or is this a Paula Deen that has ongoing active relationships with black people in her work and life today?

    • Any vulgarity directed at another player, coach or ref will draw a flag and a suspension for the remainder of the game. A simple vulgarity (not directed at anybody) will draw a flag.

      Not sure about remarks regarding sexual orientation.

      My friend’s point was that using the N-word is going to get the player kicked out of the game whether it is directed by a white kid at an African-American or an African-American at another African-American. The latter case was far more common – especially between two players on the same team.

      Peter asked, “Does anybody know what the rules are?”. My friend had to make up the rules for the little league football. If you say the N-word during the game you get an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and you get tossed out of the game – no matter who says the word.

      Sounds like my friend would make a good Food Channel executive. Although … I wounder what the Food Channel would do if one of their African – American stars were deposed and admitted to using the N-word. I’d guess they’d do nothing.

  8. I assume DJ has played sports and knows the full range of gender and race-based pejoratives often used…. 😉

    My rules are – to treat others like you would like to be treated regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation or any other frickin thing.

    we can have our judgements but unless the other person is a known axe murderer or similar – you treat them with dignity unless they cannot behave.

    in terms of the civil rights era – what were we doing back then?

    Not what you do now – what were you doing back when black people were being fire-hosed in Birmingham, denied admission to schools and arrested for sitting at a lunch counter?

    that’s a question folks.

    that, in some part, defines where you (and Paula) are or are not on the race continuum scale and I do not mean this in a blame-based way – only for each of us to be honest with ourselves as to where we were on this issue – then – and now.

    I, for one, was a bit of a coward, in that I did not participate in the street marches but I was totally opposed to the systematic an institutional treatment of the blacks but not “enough”.

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