I wanted to believe Paula Deen. I wanted to believe that maybe she was like my Southern white grandparents: born in a different era, ignorant to change.
And then my mama — white and Southern and born during the battle for civil rights — set me straight.
My mom is from a tiny mountain town in North Carolina. After moving to Northern Virginia, just outside of D.C., she saw the world differently. She met my black dad. She had me. And despite her excitement, she couldn’t bring me down South to meet my grandmother or the rest of my white family. My mama couldn’t bring me home.
In their time, blacks and whites didn’t mix. In fact, there weren’t many blacks in their town, period. Stereotypes reigned. But as the years passed, they changed. We met. They learned to embrace me as an Osterheldt.
“Most of us were born into that kind of thinking,” my mom says of Southern whites. “It’s an ignorance that we were brought up in, but you live and you learn. You have a choice.”
And that’s how Paula Deen is different, my mama says. Paula Deen has been out in the world for some time. She’s long been exposed to people from all walks of life. Her powerhouse team is ethnically diverse. She knew better, but she chose to perpetuate racism.
“She cooks with too much butter, too much oil and is full of too much fakeness,” my mama says.
Deen has been in hot water since last week’s revelations that while under oath for a discrimination lawsuit she admitted to using racial slurs in the past. On Friday, she begged for forgiveness on YouTube. Hours later, the Food Network dumped her. On Monday, Smithfield Foods said she could no longer ham it up as their spokeswoman, and other companies have her on the chopping block.
Meanwhile, NBC’s Matt Lauer said Deen would appear on the “Today” show Wednesday, after she abruptly canceled last week.
And now the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports new
from employees citing more racial slurs and unfair pay. One cook says he was nicknamed “my little monkey.” There’s no solid proof of these latest stories yet, but it’s not looking good for Paula.
Paula says she doesn’t tolerate racism. Lots of people have stood up to defend her and to chide the Food Network. But just a few years ago she wanted to throw a plantation-style wedding with an all-black wait staff. And during her deposition, she acted like she didn’t know if jokes using the N-word were mean.
“That’s kind of hard,” Paula said in a deposition. “Most jokes are about Jewish people, rednecks, black folks. They usually target, though, a group. Gays or straights, black, redneck, you know, I just don’t know — I just don’t know what to say. I can’t, myself, determine what offends another person.”
She doesn’t know if jokes targeting people based on race, culture, gender and sexual orientation are offensive?
Come on, y’all
. No matter how you cook it, racism can’t be on the menu.
But is it really too late for the famous chef?
It depends. Right now, she’s caught forgiveness fever in an effort to save her Southern-fried empire before it burns. She’s lost her Food Network shows. Her endorsements look shaky. Those cooked-up apologies came in the face of losing millions of dollars. That’s not sincerity. That’s not progress. That’s business.
The difference between Paula Deen and my Southern white family is she hasn’t recognized her wrongdoing. Not really. I think Paula hasn’t stopped to care about how hateful her language can be. She believes her behavior is acceptable. But it’s not.
Paula Deen did with the New York Times last year. She talked about race relations in the South. It was tricky. She talked about her staffer Hollis Johnson, whom she said she loves like a son. But she also called him “black as a board,” and when she invited him on stage, in front of a crowd, she said, “We can’t see you standing against that dark board.”
It was cringe-worthy, but the audience laughed. Paula thought nothing of it. He stood there holding her hand. “You love somebody because of what’s inside, not outside,” Paula said.
I believe she believes that. But I think she needs to do the work to fully live it. And let’s be honest. We all do.
We need to talk about it, to really converse about how hurtful and unacceptable the jokes, slurs and ideals are and genuinely try to understand one another.
And hopefully, when Paula Deen joins the “Today” show on Wednesday, she turns off the Southern charm and gets real. Because even though she can’t stand Paula, my mom believes it’s never too late to do the right thing.
“You can’t change the past,” my mama says. “But you can change the future.”