I use to say that a lot . . . . until Paula Deen. The caricature she created made her a success but I never cared for it. It seemed a parody of all that I didn’t like about my southern upbringing: the bright, flashy clothes, the syrupy drawl, the pancake makeup. It had worked for others before her; Dolly Parton, Tammy Faye Baker. And, for many years, it worked very well for Deen. So, I can’t say I was too dismayed when I heard the revelations that she had used a racial slur in the past and her subsequent meltdown. For a brief moment, I thought, “Great. Now her face won’t be plastered on displays in every store I walk into and maybe I won’t hear her ever again say, “Hey, ya’ll!” But then reason brought me back to my senses – I knew that she would bounce back. Her reputation might be sullied and she will certainly lose millions, but she will hang on to many more. Just look at Tiger Woods and Charlie Sheen. We are quick to forgive and forget when it comes to our celebrities.
As I read the sordid details of what she admits to and is alleged to have done, watched the videos of her apologies, the Matt Lauer interview and her interview with the NY Daily News in 2012 (http://www.nydailynews.com/entertainment/tv-movies/paula-deen-appears-defend-slavery-2012-interview-article-1.1379912), I was angered and deeply saddened. Her lack of understanding and insensitivity (to put it mildly) was out there for all to see long before the deposition in which she admits to using the N-word. We didn’t care to see it or challenge it for any number of reasons. Perhaps it was that we liked being entertained by her kitschy southern shtick and so we looked the other way. More likely, is that we are immune to the subtle racism that abounds in the south, but also in the north, the Midwest, the west. It may dress up differently depending on where one is, but it is there in every corner and every pocket of our society. The feigned innocence of Paula Deen and all of the rest of us is something that I’m not buying. We are innocent and ignorant because we choose not to see what is so obviously there to those on the receiving end of our good-personed innocence and ignorant racism. In the 2012 New York Daily News interview,Deen says, “We are all prejudiced against one thing or another. I think black people feel the same prejudice that white people feel.” And with one brush of her well-manicured hand and batting of her eyelashes, she erased the history of slavery, Jim Crow, Civil Rights. As I recoiled at her comments, the realization came searing into my brain, “As racist as she is, Paula Deen is not the monster. We are the monster. We like our place of comfort, our place of power, our place of superiority. We hang on to our innocence and ignorance, because to open our eyes to the insidious racism that is infused in our daily lives, would foster a moral dilemma that many of us simply cannot face. Paula Deen may be a caricature, but a caricature is after all merely a comic expression of the real thing.