What I Wish Paula Deen Had Said

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You’ve heard it on the news. You might have seen the interview Paula Deen gave on the Today Show. I found it hard viewing. She was a classical, older southerner and Matt Lauer clearly clueless about the real moral struggles of her generation of southerners dealing with their  racial feelings. For Lauer, it boiled down to whether she’d used a particular word just once or more than just once.

Which got me thinking…I have now seen several prominent southern celebrities trip up over some remark they made that included either a racial slur-word or betrayed what we now understand to be racist, or racist-tending, attitudes. Everyone focuses on parsing the statements, debating the words, but nobody seems, in my mind, to “get it.” The apologies come off lame and sometimes seem outright untruthful. The critics seem hypocritical, dissecting the motives of others when they have done and said much that is as bad, or worse.

So…not to be criticizing Paula Deen, I thought about just what I wish she’d been able to say, and I wrote it out, partly for my own reflection, and I share it with you in the interest of trying to go a bit deeper into these sorts of conflicts.

What I wish Paula Deen had said on the Today Show:

Matt, you can tell by looking at me and listening to me talk. I’m 66 years old,  a southern white woman with big hair who loves to cook. In your mind, I’m not a person, I’m a cartoon. A bottle-blonde ditzy southern belle making big money cooking on television. But there are some things you can’t see from your pundit’s chair.

Matt, In my lifetime, I lived at ground zero of the most significant moral and social transformation to sweep America since the ratification of the Constitution. African Americans went from being abused, buried under prejudice and biased local regulations and customs, subjected to indignities beyond description, to being recognized and welcomed as full citizens in our American republic.

At the same time, I grew up, was shaped by, and loved my—admittedly white—southern culture. Unfortunately, we (white) southerners had to face the fact that our culture had been horribly, obscenely wrong in how it treated African Americans. We didn’t just adjust to new laws. We had to face the grisly fact that we had been on the wrong side of a massive moral divide. It’s hard, one day, to think of yourself and your family as a decent and moral, and the next day, face the fact that you’ve been stained deeply by a moral fault that literally was the air you breathed and the glasses in front of your eyes for most of your life. It could feel a bit like people who suddenly saw they had cancer from a toxic waste dump deep in the ground under the foundations of their home. Of course, choices were made, but choices are only the tip of the iceberg. What makes choices meaningful is the  network of memories, affections, ideas and experiences that inform and shape the choices.

I grew up with a contradiction. My deeply Christian, moral American family believed every person was to be treated equally, both under the law and in everyday human life, and actually, that’s how they did indeed act most of the time. And yet, the toxic legacy of racism lingered. It lingered in our instinctive feelings, in our social reflexes, in artifacts of our speech, and even in our sense of humor, for white southerners but also for African American southerners. Long after we had completely reset our moral compasses, re-charted our course, and re-discovered, by the grace of God, the precious worth of every human being,  especially those we formerly excluded, the smelly vapors of our dead past still periodically wafted up from the swamps of our unconscious. From time to time, the radon gas of racism found its way into our basements despite all our efforts to seal it out.

As a result, we who grew up in the “old” south and have lived to love and celebrate the “new” south, still stumble. We laugh involuntarily at a slyly racist barb that hits our funny-bone just a split second before it registered on our conscience. We trip up on a piece of nostalgic emotion or imagery attached to the old reality, and before we know it, we’ve said something not only wrong, but at odds with our deep moral commitments that we’ve invested decades of effort to shape.

I’ve had some of those moments. I’ve said things, laughed at things, expressed ripples of feeling, that show I am still on this journey, still in need of more growth. And I’m forging ahead. I’m determined to be a finer, better person than I’ve been. I won’t quit until every vestige of the old way is burned out of my life. And I won’t abandon the quest just because I have seen afresh how much I need to keep pursuing it.

Those who have not made this journey, who have never faced a sin that is as much cultural DNA as it is ethical choices, have no idea how hard it is. Our elusive enemy resides within our own soul. It’s the layered fabric of an entire culture, woven through our being at the most formative stage of our lives. We white southerners, especially those of us older than 50, live with this every day. We confess and grieve our moments of callous insensitivity, our involuntary slip into habits and sensibilities of a worldview we have repudiated and now abhor that came from people and places we inhabited and adored. I believe most southerners have done incredibly well in walking this journey, but obviously, we— I—have miles yet to go.

Matt, I’m sorry for hurtful things I said. I won’t make any excuses. I do ask that the other actions in my life—almost all I’ve done and said in my adult life—would be allowed also to have their say as you shape your judgment of me. I ask that you would look into your own heart. Do you not  struggle with deep-seated, culturally ingrained habits of thought, word and deed? Can you face your own attitudes about older, big-haired southern white women, and extend to me, along with this welcomed accountability,  the grace that we all—you included—need in order to walk the path of justice and righteousness together.

The odd thing is, I suspect Paula Deen, in her own way, in her own words, could give that speech. What I wonder, what I doubt, is whether Matt Lauer could hear it…

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I’m 60 years old, professor of Old Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. I love my wife of 36 years, my three adult children and children-in-law. I love our three horses, two cats, and whatever other creatures decide to call our place home. I hate mowing grass, hanging pictures or shelves, or anything involving punching or drilling holes in walls. I love my job of studying and teaching the Old Testament. I’ve recently contracted a fierce interest in archaeology. I also enjoy guitars, jazz, vintage firearms, airplanes, photography, drystone masonry and, visiting the lands of the Bible.

41 COMMENTS

  1. I distinctly remember a day in Seminary when I realized I was harboring a prejudice against men who spoke with a southern drawl. The nature of the class was such that it was appropriate to confess my unjust mental habit, and the reaction tended toward indignation that I should hold such a malevolent inclination. It took a while for me to want to share my faults to another out of fear that I would be soundly condemned instead of heard as one seeking God’s grace to grow past his failures.

    • And, Mike, we southerners (I’m a Texan) grew up with biases regarding the odd way Nw Englanders talk.

      I write this from my motorhome, which is parked for a few days in my daughter’s New Bedford, MA home. Her husband grew ip in Boston. He talks funny.

  2. Wow…just..wow! You have SO eloquently summed up many of my thoughts on this subject which have been rattling around in my head with no real direction. EVERYONE has SOME preconcieved ideas about SOME group of people even if we don’t feel that way deep down and if they say they don’t they’re lying to themselves. Thank you. I will be sharing this.

  3. If I may, I would like to share how this hit me, a southerner well under the 50 mark. I think younger southerners like myself had (and still do have) difficulty in our formative years seeing beyond the negative expressions of the real struggles (a mix of remorse and bitterness) of the elders to which we look up. In other words, we did not have the capability to understand the socio-historical issue, and instead developed our attitudes on the past as we mimicked those we admired. We did not see the deep-seated struggle, but the fleeting expressions that were not always positive. And I did not recognize the negative side as anything other than the right, since these attitudes, at least in many small contexts, were (and are) nothing more than normative.

    In other words, the still somewhat bitter remarks so mix with a real sense of remorse that I, and I assume other young southerners, assumed (and still assume) that these expressions of our elders were just examples of the highest state of our human forgiveness that could be realistically expected in such events, regretful that it happened, but still somewhat bitter at the reminder that our ancestors had to be corrected. There was a time that I assumed that coming to this point of forgiveness was good enough, nothing else could be expected of us: “We’re sorry, but we don’t have to be happy about it.”

    For older generations, the presence of “other” cultures often seems to be a constant reminder of our culture’s (white southern culture) once (and still ongoing) struggle with racism, and, ironically, but naturally enough, our negative feelings about ourselves and how the past played out create an animosity towards the “other” that is demonstrated in fleeting remarks, glances, and attitudes, the sort of actions young people naturally imitate as they pick them up in formative years, not because we too want to be negative, but because we want to be like our elders.

    So, I think the reality that you paint in your blog is so important to state, especially for the younger generations. Adults in our culture (and any culture) need to admit our struggles and not pretend like “this is just the way it is,” but point instead to where it is we hope to go. I think that you are right, this is a stage in the journey towards real restoration, as ugly and imperfect that journey might be, but when I was younger I did not see it that way. Instead, I simply assumed the strange and imbalanced attitude of “remorse with bitterness” was normative, and I too, with no real reason, developed that attitude. I would even make statements in my young adult life that I did not recognize as racist, but would now make my skin crawl if I heard it from my child’s mouth.

    I think things are getting better, and I hope my daughter will not ever see any fleeting and flippant attitude arise from me. I hope the chains of my culture continue to break, and we can only applaud such a culture for progress. Instead of thinking, “Oh, look what they still deal with, how pitiable, how base,” it should be thought, “At least there goes a culture that really struggles with becoming who they should be and with the negative sides of their reality and no longer tries to act like their ills are not real or inconsequential.” For too long southern culture has been caricaturized to the point that younger southerners are made to feel as if they are doing something wrong if they take any pride in who they are.

    • The really sad thing is, of course, that every culture has its interwoven, subversive evils built into its basic structures. We in the US tend to put it all down to skin color, which is so superficial. In other cultures where I have lived, people readily found other reasons to reject persons from other groups with the identical physical appearance. When asked, they gave their reasons in an “Of course, obviously…” sort of tone. So while the south has the position of being so obviously and publicly identified with a heinous evil, we should not let that blind us to the toxic sludge that silently poisons others who have not had the dubious privilege of historical unmasking and exposure.

      • This is true even in space. I love the “Star Trek” episode, “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield.” The characters hated one another because their faces were half white, half black, only opposite sides of each face. We find a way to find what is different about one another.

        • Well said Lawson. It is true Clay; homo sapiens are, due to what I would assume to be survival and ego oriented behaviors, extremely adept at exaggerating our differences. As single points of consciousness, the differences comprise much of what defines who we are. Conversely, the things we share can remove the obscurity division and blame create, as Lawson so eloquently demonstrates.

      • Ls: problem being, the supreme court has paved the way for further oppression in the south with the invalidation if the voting rights act.But the past isn’t past. The entire Sunday school class at my dad’s church all said they used the N-word, and DIDN’T THINK IT DEROGATORY. you lengthy apologia is odd.

        • JD-this was not an “apologia”-I think it was clear, if you even read the blog article, that racial slur words are wrong. What I was probing was the separation of the word from the actual moral intentions and trajectory of a person’s life, and identifying how the process of uprooting sins and wrongs that arise from our cultural conditioning is long and arduous. Your argument about your dad’s Sunday School class actually means nothing other than that yes, your dad’s class is full of racially clueless people and maybe that’s not the class to continue identifying with. That they don’t consider it derogatory says nothing about my blog or Paula Deen’s apology, but much about your church.

          • LS:not my church. dad’s. u assume too much. donnoa: funny to use deaf, as i haven’t heard anything on this website. just able to see that the PD defenders who loudly proclain their badying about of the n-word don’t need to be excused.

        • JD-I’m still puzzling over just what SCOTUS did regarding the voting rights act. It didn’t seem to me that they invalidated it, but growing up in the deep south, I also know how technicalities of law were often used to block African Americans from voting. Some think some of those conditions are past, others don’t. How do you see that? Is the whole VRA mooted? Gutted? Adjusted to the times?

  4. Not cool to excuse what she said. Really not cool. When is it okay to oppress others? Who cares what the majority is saying or doing? It is a person’s moral duty to do what is right! It may not happen ( and that’s between that person and God) but there is a moral obligation. People knew that when enslavement and oppression began. She (and everyone else who thinks it’s okay) need to do what is morally and ethically right. Bottom line. End of story.

    • Kelly, I think you miss the point. The author is not at all excusing what Ms. Deen said. If I understand Mr. Lawson, the point is that we are all on a journey of learning how not to offend others when that offense is a part of our cultural history. Habits learned and polished over years take many more years to un-learn, and even when you think you have completely defeated that habit, it suddenly sneaks up and reappears. If this has never happened to you, then I hope it never does. But if it does, I hope you will remember your intolerance for others who slipped up and regretted it, and I hope you find tolerance from those you offended.

      • Beautifully said Laura. I think you summed it up very eloquently. In addition, what seems so far to remain unsaid in ALL of the stories and comments I’ve read so far is simple…..”Let he who is without sin, cast the first stone”

    • Kelly,
      I’m puzzled. Exactly where in the article have I excused what she said? What I did was try to explain how she could say something (admittedly, 25 years ago!) and not necessarily be a racist. We are all on some kind trajectory out of ingrained sinful habits, and from time to time, despite our efforts and genuine experience, we get nabbed. St. Paul in Romans 7 said something about this, I think. I hope you’ll re-read the article, maybe a bit more carefully 😉 and you’ll see I am not excusing anything.

    • I think everyone is missing the point. She is not being sued for “just” saying a word 27 years ago. She has made numerous comments over the year. Excusing what she is saying, because of her age and appearance, shows to me that racism is still in full effect in our country. I do not know of ONE person, who uses the word, that is not prejudice. What a shame.

  5. I moved to a western state from Mississippi and served on a federal grand jury..the first question I was asked by fellow jurors from the western state was”are you prejudiced?”.. After serving with these locals ,I found them to have more prejudices against Hispanics and Native Americans than I ever thought of having..My comment was…”I’m only prejudiced against stupidity and ignorance and yours is showing!!!’

  6. Lawson, this is a thoughtful piece that really touched me. To my knowledge I have never used a racial slur, but my grandparents did. They employed African-Americans on their farm, treated them like family and took care of them in times of trouble. One of the women was my “Nanny” for a while. However, my Papaw also told racially offensive jokes that I still remember but wish I could forget.

    I’m 57 years old and a child of the South. My white Southern culture has left the tattoo of racism on my soul since childhood. I have struggled against these thoughts wishing and praying they were not there, but they still lurk in the shadows. Thankfully, truth trumps culture, and I am able to see persons of color differently because of the gospel.

    My wife and I lived in Cambodia for two years and saw racism in Asia, too. Many Khmers have disdain for Thais even though they are ethnically related and very similar in appearance. Cambodian women buy skin-whitening lotions to make themselves look more Chinese. Our language instructor was a young Christian, Cambodia man deeply in love with a young Cambodian woman whose family had ethnic roots in China. Her family would not permit them to marry because he was too dark-skinned.

    I, too, watched the Paula Deen interview this week and had similar thoughts about Matt Lauer’s questions. It reminded me of an encounter I had with a respected seminary professor while at Asbury who ridiculed my Southern drawl in one of his classes. To this day, I find it difficult to escape the humiliation I felt for not being able to speak the “Queen’s English” (his phrase not mine). I’ve tried to stop talking Southern and can’t seem to shake it—at least not completely. The same can be said for the racial attitudes of many Southerners including myself. But by the grace of God, many of us keep trying.

    • Greg….we all hail from different parts of the country, and we all have differing “drawls, terminology and slang”….I am from the Northeast. As a telephone operator for many years, I was often asked to say “Park your car in the garage”..which of course, as we all know is actually…Pahk ya cah in the garahge”……my “New England accent” has never bothered me..and there is little need for you to feel embarrassed over the way you speak…..embrace who you are and stand proud. We are all….DIFFERENT. And that’s ok.

    • Greg,
      Your comments are close to the bone, I think. What was one of the hardest things for me was the fact that (a) my parents and grandparents talked like racists but (b) in their daily life, they treated every very fairly, and also (c) they extended toward African Americans a kind of family affection. Now, (a) and (b) are fine, but I came to see more and more how “Oh, we loved our black employees” expressed a kind of paternalism, a patronizing, that was perhaps the velvet glove over the iron fist of racism. As long as African American employees went home to allp-black neighborhoods and didn’t move next door, or try to attend our schools, things were fine. When they started claiming their rights as full citizens, suddenly the anger and prejudice came into full view. So it is very, very hard to know from looking at the surface what’s really going on. The “N-word” is offensive, but when African Americans use it almost as a term of affection amongst themselves, they actually strip it of that poisonous force and use it in a way that we Anglo-Americans completely fail to understand. It’s because it’s not just the word, it’s the word in the context of the relationship in which it’s used. Likewise, my parents’ familial affection for African American employees could be a sign of them being way ahead of their times, or it could be paternalism grounded in a belief that African Americans are inferior. That’s why I was appalled that Matt Lauer actually reduced this to “how many times did Paula Deen use this word in her life.”

  7. Plffft! The simple answer to your question is that if she answered like you she wouldn’t be herself.TV is fake, dude. She pushed unhealthy dietary habits knowing it would cause others to risk diabetes. For three years. She made tons of money by being fake. I went to high school in the north & south, am over 50 and none of my friends ever used the n-word and no one told racist jokes. The thing that is wrong about this is that everyone wanted to profit from her phoniness, including the guy suing her. Doing the right thing means you don’t profit from the profane. Simple.

    • “Simple” is, I think, your recitation of ideological talking points. I’m glad your friends and yourself were completely cured of the scourge of racist jokes and bad words. Do pray for others who still struggle, and take care about the speck in another’s eye; sometimes the beam in our own makes it hard to see.

      • LS: noted. However, it was not I who wanted to put words in PD’s mouth, which , of course, would make her unauthentic. Or is it inauthentic? BTW, I fully apopreciate my specs., as my glases help me me see things like phonieness.

    • JD-I should have been clearer about the “genre” of my post. of course, I didn’t expect Paula Deen to say what I wrote. I had in mind what I wish she’d been articulate and alert enough to say, because I suspect that’s the kind of person she is deep down, though I don’t know. As for profiting from the profane, I suspect we all profit from great evils, and if that makes us all incapable of being in the right, we’re all sunk. Those who built companies through the 19th century in northeastern industry built them on the backs of child-labor and grossly underpaid women workers. I guess those businesses now can never do the right thing. Midwestern corn farmers are profiting from a food industry that force-feeds corn and corn by-products even to animals not even fitted by nature to digest it, and to people who don’t even know how much corn they actually consume. Midwestern meat packers running Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, feeding meat by-products to cattle…does a grocer in Muncie share the guilt? I’m not saying you’re wrong, just saying that logic makes a hash any of us seeking to be ethical about anything. Plenty of inherited guilt to go around.

  8. While I appreciate much of what you’ve written, Paula Deen’s guilt arises from far more than just saying the “n” word a couple times or telling jokes. She put on a formal dinner and dressed black people like slaves so as to get a real “Civil War” feel. Um, this is after the culture, and she, supposedly, knew better.

    • I agree that was totally wrong and betrays a tone-deafness (at best) that can’t be excused. But what if she was making a movie about the old south? At what point does “casting” become legitimate recreation of the past? Can a dinner supposedly set in a particular historical era recreate the period appropriately? If she’d used white people as her slave-attendants, would someone have protested that she was denying the existence of African slavery in the American south? Or is the culture of the ante-bellum south to be simply written out of all remembrance, the way the Pharaoh’s of ancient Egypt ground off their monuments a whole century of kings who were of another race?

        • I’m sorry JD I can’t figure out what you’re saying here. I didn’t mean to say should should have said this, I was using this as a kind of literary device to present some ideas about the whole discussion. It seemed to me I could keep the topic focused if I kept it framed as the conversation between Paula Deen and Matt Lauer.

          You seem quite angry at me, and yet to my knowledge, we’ve never met. What’s your beef with me?

          • no beef with you. but PD wanting to do “slave-style” wedding reception for her brother waas a killer, no? Brought back a bad experience from homebuying in georgia when in mid 70’s a real estate agent asked “what do they think they’re doing?’ when she saw an african-american family looking at a home in a predominaantly white neighborhood.

          • I agree that Paula Deen’s wanting to do a “slave-style” wedding reception for her brother was despicable. However, we who grew up in the North are not used to ( and can’t relate to) that kind of racist behavior. Any woman who waited on us at the table was called “Mom”. I dare say, for anyone who was brought up in the South…especially when SHE was a child, may have had a very different upbringing.. I can still recall many years ago, watching on TV those VERY brave little black girls, walking into school, surrounded by hatred….and yet, they walked straight on..heads held high. They were probably terrified. That was SO foreign to me I just couldn’t IMAGINE what it must have been like for those little girls…..we didn’t live that way up here. There was no “color line”…..we were all just people…and not defined by the color of our skin. But PD was brought up with a different attitude….and… If there is one thing I’ve learned in my 65 years, it’s this….we are, first and foremost, products of our environment. And I think that needs to be taken into account.

  9. I’m from Texas, not the true South. I was taught from an early age, never, ever say the “N” word. Racism is not just for the black americans, although a lot of people think that is the only time it’s applied. Have any of you, (be honest) ever told or listened to a joke about Polish people, Chinese people, Irish people, Jewish people, etc.? I bet you laughed too. The race card is played on all ends. If you have ever worked or lived in New York, there are very few ethnics that actually like one another. I had a black woman that didn’t like me because I was from the “South”. After I spoke with her about it, she realized I was ok, but she had a preconceived idea about me. As far as a “Plantation Wedding” maybe in poor taste by todays standards, those people were paid to do a job. If they didn’t want to participate, they could have stayed home. Paula Deen is not evil, but she has been put on public trial for something she said in private 30 years ago because she was honest. The “woman” not a man that is suing her and her brother, is the evil one. All she wants is money that she didn’t earn. Paula worked for her money, not by suing someone for it. I was born in 1947, so I’m pretty up to snuff on what happened since then. I remember things that so many of you do not. I say shame on Food Network and rest of the followers. To bad they aren’t as honest as Paula.

  10. Well expressed, Lawson. Here’s some random thoughts: Hollywood writers have long depicted Southerners as cartoon characters. Silver screen, television and stage producers have only been too obliging to continue to promote the tired stereotype of which Ms. Deen perpetuates. The Today Show interview, as well as other appearances by her, have done nothing more than provide daily theater which has sold more advertising. It’s just good business. Also, someone really had it in for Ms. Deen. Here’s more good theater: who knew what, when did they know it and why did they leak it? As good and kind as I believe we are as a people, Americans still don’t seem to mind see the mighty stumble a little and take a fall if need be. It is unfortunate that the revenue lost by the decline of Ms. Deen will cost someone their job and/or reduce their income. It may not affect the network fat cats, but some of the folks who make and/or package her products or help put her TV show on the air have probably had to find another way to make their mortgage or car payment. Finally, I still don’t get why Kanye West, R Kelly, et al get a pass on using the N-word? Isn’t it denigrating when used by everyone? Guess not. Well Hollywood, the Media and the Forth Estate are creators of illusion and life, in this case imitates art. Pass the virtual biscuits, please.

  11. This was an incredibly thought provoking post. And, at least for me, made me look deeper within myself, and did not tempt me at all to make excuses for or look down on the accused Southern cook. I have lots of stuff that needs purging and this post gave me a fresh look at it. Thanks Lawson!

  12. Penetrating spiritual insight and cultural sensitivity, brother Lawson! You would make a fine judge. The more I learn in global travels and historical studies, the more I can appreciate the perspective you incarnate. well done!

  13. I loved your article up until the very last few lines, when you decided to doubt whether Matt Lauer could have heard and understood… seems at that point… that you became as blind as you thought he was early in the article… the middle however is wonderfully written and thought provoking…

    • David,
      You’re likely right. I felt Lauer was almost baiting her. His unctuous, quiet voice, almost like one would talk to a child, almost created a space for her to break down emotionally. His “…so you only used the n-word once in your life…”

      But you’re right, I likely have some prejudices against northern media pundits that are finding expression there. I lived in Connecticut for 5 or 6 years and really enjoyed life among the “yankees” whom I found fun, smart and companionable. So it might not be so much regional as skeptical about the media.

      You have made a just observation, one I’ll have to ponder.

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