Leslie Lilly is the immediate past President and CEO of the Community Foundation for Palm Beach and Martin Counties. Her professional career spans more than twenty-five years in the charitable sector, primarily in the American South and Appalachia. In this guest post, Ms. Lilly breaks with White Courtesy Telephone tradition by appearing intelligent and balanced. —Eds.
There is a price to pay for willful ignorance sustained at someone else’s expense. Paula Deen will have a long time to consider what she might have done better or differently, or perhaps stopped doing altogether, in the aftermath of the bad kitchen behaviors that are now public record. Her fans as well as her detractors are in full-throated defense or condemnation, depending at which end of the table they have chosen to sit.
The public uproar started when Deen went on video for a court deposition. A former employee in one of her restaurants filed a lawsuit accusing Deen of employment discrimination. The deposition had the same flavor as a cook show episode, albeit a very different topic. Deen was her flamboyant self; her cup of folksiness ran over as she described at length her racial attitudes. It was quite a performance. She owned up to her naughtiness at having used the “N” word, expressing her regret and sorrow and that she never meant to hurt anyone. She was sorry, sorry, sorry. She loves black people.
Well, all hell broke loose. There have been more television interviews, more apologies, explanations and tears. Yet the more Deen talks and tries to negotiate her way out of this briar patch, the more excruciating her anguished protests of repentance become. She’s been seared like a steak by the public shaming. The charitable-minded have come forth and counseled against an excess of blame, i.e., “those without guilt should cast the first stone.” These outpourings of humility must account for Deen’s latest cookbook rocketing to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list. So when will we be done?
Some say, because she is not a young woman, we should forgive her white, “old school,” Southern way of talking about race. She has suffered a painful comeuppance, including the loss of millions in product endorsements; and though misguided, her comments weren’t intentionally nasty, just like utterances we’ve heard from other nice people we know. Why, heck, some of them are even our relatives! Meanwhile, others who - listened to what she said, saw hoop skirts and Massa’s plantation resurrected before their horrified eyes. These are the people who do not think it would be fun is re-live the 19th Century, especially in the South. To them, Deen’s racial attitudes were simply offensive.
Deen is a savvy entrepreneur who has successfully capitalized on Southern culture and culinary heritage by making “Southern” the heart of her brand; so she isn’t just dishing up fried chicken and collard greens when she is promoting her business. She is selling a version of an “authentic” South for which she is the star spokesperson. When you go out on that limb, you own it. When she says Southern white folk are less prejudiced toward black people than others she is too polite to name, she does so with the credibility of someone divulging a family secret as if it’s the gospel truth to her millions of trusted fans. She defends her racial attitudes, saying all Southern white people have this “special” relationship with black folk because their shared history is deeply and commonly rooted in the South. This white chauvinism conveniently ignores the pain and suffering endured by blacks as Southern slaves. Deen’s great-great-great-great grandfather was a slaveholder. Had this “special” relationship been internalized in Deen’s narrative, a more racially sensitive perspective might have emerged to also change her behaviors. It would have helped had they also been enlightened by her modern reference to the two hundred years of struggle by African-Americans to achieve racial equity in this country. It is terribly painful to witness someone so deeply out of touch with the arc of their own Southern history; and who has given so little thought to the harm it does to infect others with old deceits.
The civil rights movement ended Jim Crow, the segregation in our public schools, and won the right to vote for millions of disenfranchised African-Americans. This past June, the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act; the George Zimmerman trial got started; and a hard-fought battle for a comprehensive immigration bill took place in the U.S. Senate. We are not living in a post-racial society. Deen’s fall from grace is a reminder of how easy it is to lose your way when your brain disconnects from its moral compass; or, in another painful episode of same, given the gravity of the Zimmerman trial, is it ever appropriate to tell a knock-knock joke when lives are lost and at stake?