Times of duress and the way we respond to them often show who we truly are. As such, the fact that the sole occasion celebrity chef Paula Deen can think of when she used a word she should not have is one in which she seems to believe justifies using it is quite telling.
I don’t believe her, but let’s operate under the theory Deen and her PR team are employing, that the only time she’s ever said the word nigger was while being held at gunpoint by a Black man. Let’s agree that she didn’t say, “Well, what I would really like is a bunch of little niggers to wear long-sleeve white shirts, black shorts and black bow ties, you know in the Shirley Temple days, they used to tap dance around. Now that would be a true southern wedding, wouldn’t it? But we can’t do that because the media would be on me about that,” as she’s accused of saying. Saying that would be pretty indefensibly racist.
(Deen’s PR team is now helmed by “Scandal” inspiration Judy Smith, so she can’t be racist, right?)
In her deposition, Deen admitted to the sentiment of the statement, including using the phrase “really southern plantation wedding,” but denied many of the more lurid allegations against her brother and of course using the N-word.
Sure. Fine. So let’s agree that flippant and giddy use of the N-word isn’t in Deen’s lexicon. Let’s agree that she only uses it in times of extreme emotional distress, and even then only behind the person’s back. Let’s look at that.
Below is a copy of her testimony from the hearing.
Lawyer: Have you ever used the N-word yourself?
Deen: Yes, of course.
Lawyer: Okay. In what context?
Deen: Well, it was probably when a black man burst into the bank that I was working at and put a gun to my head.
Lawyer: Okay. And what did you say?
Deen: Well, I don’t remember, but the gun was dancing all around my temple … I didn’t — I didn’t feel real favorable towards him.
Lawyer: Okay. Well, did you use the N-word to him as he pointed a gun in your head at your face?
Deen: Absolutely not.
Lawyer: Well, then, when did you use it?
Deen: Probably in telling my husband.
Lawyer: Okay. Have you used it since then?
Deen: I’m sure I have, but it’s been a very long time.
Lawyer: Can you remember the context in which you have used the N-word?
Lawyer: Has it occurred with sufficient frequency that you cannot recall all of the various context in which you’ve used it?
Deen: No, no.
Lawyer: Well, then tell me the other context in which you’ve used the N-word?
Deen: I don’t know, maybe in repeating something that was said to me.
Lawyer: Like a joke?
Deen: No, probably a conversation between blacks. I don’t — I don’t know. But that’s just not a word that we use as time has gone on. Things have changed since the ’60s in the south. And my children and my brother object to that word being used in any cruel or mean behavior. As well as I do.
I’ve never been held up at gunpoint, but I have been jumped and beaten up by a group of white men. After it happened, I can tell you with profound certainty that my first reaction was not to utter or scream a racial epithet. I was furious, but neither that night nor on any night sense did I have the urge to call the men who attacked me crackers or honkies or any other pejorative for white people that we’re supposed to pretend is anywhere near equivalent to the word nigger.
That’s not because I’m a better person than Paula Deen or because I have better impulse control or that I thought someone might hold it against me later. I didn’t use those words because it never occurred to me to do so. It wouldn’t occur to most people. For most of us, racial slurs are just things we don’t say. We don’t say them because we don’t think them. Telling your husband that a “nigger” robbed you makes you a racist. It’s really that simple.
There is something unique about that word. It’s a word that, whether the user knows it or not, means something. It comes from the Spanish and Portuguese noun negro and in its originally constructed context meant that we were cargo, objects, chattel.
It’s a word that is unmatched in its hatred and bigotry and a word that has no equal in terms of degradation and dehumanization. That’s why the word is so offensive and that’s why it’s not OK to say it.
But that standard should apply to everyone, from children of the pre-civil rights South to gangsta rappers. To quote Dr. Laura Schlessinger, “Black guys use it all the time. Turn on HBO and listen to a black comic, and all you hear is nigger, nigger, nigger. I don’t get it. If anybody without enough melanin says it, it’s a horrible thing. But when black people say it, it’s affectionate. It’s very confusing.”
As admittedly ignorant as Dr. Laura’s commentary was, I have to begrudgingly agree. The effusive use of the word by not just rappers, but the large majority of the African American populace has seemingly clouded judgment about the acceptability of its use by the rest of the population. Heaven forbid there be something that only Black people can say.
But if we’re going to have a healthy conversation about the acceptability of White people using the N-word, it might be best not to start it with a woman who claims she used it only to describe an attacker and wants to dress Black folks up as servants in a “southern plantation wedding.”
Pastor Gregory A. Tyson Sr., an African-American pastor at First Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church in Savannah, recently came to Deen’s defense, telling a local TV station that Deen is a friend to him and to the black community. Using the N-word, he suggested, does not automatically make her a racist.
And he’s right. But the context in which she used the word, her attempt to justify using it and this little video from the New York Times make her someone who doesn’t fit the values and core constituencies I hold for myself. Apparently, Target and Walmart, et al. feel the same way.
If you want to support someone who has admitted to saying some pretty awful things and stands accused of saying some that are even worse, that’s your business. But don’t pretend that anyone else should feel the same way.