Sunday, June 30, 2013

Paula Deen, the N word, and the Rest of Us

Have you seen Paula Deen's tearful interviews from the last week or so?  They come on the heels of her admission that at points in her past she has used the n word, admissions that led to her losing most of her marketing power.  I suppose it's not really so much that she admits to having used the n word as the context of the situation, one where she is being sued by someone who is alleging racism.  And when you consider how she responded awkwardly to the audible gasp that our society had at her past comments, I'm guessing that didn't help either.   (Lots of tearful interviews, stories about her ancestors not being able to cope with the loss of their slaves after the Civil War, and a strange moment where she beckoned out a black friend on public television in an attempt to show that she was not a racist.)

But seriously, the whole thing bugs me.  Why?  Because the n word comments were things said 30ish years ago?  That's one of the reasons.

But the main reason has to do with how we as a society want to look down our noses at Paula Deen and label her as a southern woman who just doesn't get it when the reality is, what she has done and said is probably no different than  the ways most of us relate to others.

You may be saying, "Nope, not me.  I would never use the n word."  And that's the rub.  This conversation is really not about the n word.  This conversation is about the awkward, unwieldly topic of race, one that leaves many white people finding themselves scrambling to demonstrate how "unracist" they are.  

My Mid West, transracial parent take on it is this:  white people are not black, Hispanic, Native American or Asian.  In general, we don't have a clue about the subtleties of race because we've never really thought about it.

Blatant racism?  We get that.  We see how calling someone a nasty word, not hiring someone because they are a certain color, or refusing to allow your kids to go to school with someone because of skin color is racist.  We don't always understand the underlying implications of subtle race infused comments.

 Perhaps it's because there are a lot of mixed messages.  Current culture allows our teens and 20 somethings to use the n word and creates this stereotype regarding black gangster culture (ie being a 'playa', showing everyone your underwear because you buy your pants two sizes two big, referring to woman as 'hos', etc..)  People aren't sure if they should call a black person black or African American but are pretty sure colored and negro are unacceptable although they aren't really 100% sure why.  In fact, the trend is to try to be "color blind", refusing to acknowledge that color exists, wondering if it is okay to point out on the playground that "my daughter is the one on the bench, sitting next to the little black boy" when that might just be the easiest way to describe where you daughter is sitting.  Even the Trayvan Martin case speaks to this as the testimony from the first day included controversy over his use of the words "crazy a$$ cracker."  White people find themselves thinking that such a remark is certainly racist but confused over how some people have claimed it's not really a big deal.  

And perhaps it's because, as I suggested earlier, it's because most white people have no reason to consider how certain comments imply certain things even if there is no real intent behind their comments.  I know personally I've never really considered a lot of that until 1. we were raising minority children and 2. we spent a lot of time interacting with a large group of Hispanic teenagers through D's soccer team.  

It's this second area where Paula Deen really fell down.  I'm guessing she has no idea that using the word "workers" instead of "slaves" when she described her great grandfather's plantation probably seemed slightly off to those in the black community nor did she understand how describing them as "like family" to her family also seemed odd.  Do I think that's because she values the slave system or is glorifying it?  Nope.  She's simply describing it from her perspective, that of a white woman whose family owned slaves, slaves whom they apparently loved.  She has no idea what her use of words are communicating or if she does, she just doesn't quite understand the depth to which they might actually be deepening the divide.  

I can think of lots of similar examples, all from people I know whom I don't consider racist.  A friend who posts political commentary online regarding the current President, including a cartoon that depicted Obama with large ears (monkeyish) and a picture of a watermelon.  His intent was to put forth a political message but instead to those who are keyed into race, it looks racist.

Comments muttered under people's breaths about people coming to this country and learning to speak English.  The intent is to make a simple statement about how we as a country should be unified behind a single language.  The implication though is that there is something wrong with speaking another language.  And it also perpetuates the assumption that someone who is speaking another language does not know English when this may not be accurate.

It's starting out a joke or giving an opinion and feeling like we must preface it with "Now I'm not racist..."  (Although there are certainly times when perhaps the joke is racist.)  It's feeling like after we have been critical of someone who is of a different ethnicity than ourselves that we feel the need to point out our connection to others who are the same ethnicity but whom we are friends or whom we respect.  All of that seems innocent enough.  But the reality is to those who are looking at race through different glasses, it comes off as weird and uncomfortable, like we as white people are completely incapable of dealing with race successfully.

I am not saying that this is an us versus them issue, where white people are wrong and minorities are right to be offended.  I am not saying the opposite, that minorities need to step up and not be so easily irritated.  What I am saying is that a lot of us could do ourselves (and Paula Deen) a favor by stepping off of our highhorses and admitting that talking about race is a daunting thing and that sometimes, words are not as incriminating as we think they are.  We all have said things we wish we wouldn't have.  We all have accidentally offended someone who is different than us.  And we all should be given grace for those moments.

You can read another opinion as to why Paula Deen's "racism" doesn't matter as much as we think it does via Jim O Shea at The Huffington Post.  (Great post on how our actual action or inaction perpetuates racism and racial inequality much more than our words do.  Jonathan Kozol eque if you are an education junkie...)

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