Robert B. Simpson: More than one social offense

June 23, 2013 

Paula Deen, the lady who performs Southern cooking on television, using masses of butter and an excessively buttery Southern accent, is in trouble with the law. How much trouble and how much bad publicity will grow out of it remains to be seen.

Recently Ms. Deen was hit with a lawsuit by a former employee, a Caucasian woman, who was manager of Deen's Savannah restaurant. The employee alleges that her employer repeatedly used racist terms in discussing matters in her restaurant, and that African-American help in both her restaurant and the one run by her brother were subjected to racist behavior. Her former employer agrees to some of the allegations, such as that she, in planning her brother Bubba's wedding, used the "n" word in describing how, if it weren't for the bad publicity, she would like to have little black boys in white shirts and black bow ties and black trousers serving as waiters for the reception.

In her deposition for the U.S. District Court in Savannah, Ms. Deen admits that she has used the "n" word, but never in an "unkind" way. And has listened to some racist jokes. But, she says, they were just jokes. And she "can't determine what offends another person." She denies, though, some of the other allegations of racism covered in the deposition.

Born in Albany, Georgia, Ms. Deen went through some tough times, including a period of suffering from agoraphobia, when she could hardly bear to leave the house. Having divorced and moved to Savannah, she began to concentrate on cooking, something she could do pretty much without going outside. Using her two sons as helpers, she began catering meals. From that humble start grew an empire involving publishing cookbooks, running cooking shows, performing on television, and generally selling Paula Deen. It is an empire that rolls in millions of dollars.

Anybody born in the South more than 60 years ago, and growing up in this region, was exposed to racist terms and racist thought to such a degree that it could not help but at least rub off on them a little. On the other hand, such a person still living in 2013 who has not realized the folly of such thinking, and who has not learned to tamp down and seal off racist impulses, has to be operating under some kind of personal handicap. You have to believe that any person with the ability to create what this woman has created, whether you like the results or not, must also have the ability to overcome or subdue racist impulses. If she wants to.

I am well aware that the trial is yet to take place, and the accused may walk away officially not guilty. But not unscathed. Her business may suffer considerable damage, regardless of the trial's outcome. And also regardless of the outcome, she has admitted to numerous bits of racist attitudes that ill befit a businesswoman in today's world.

Having said all this, though, I leave the assessment of Ms. Deen's character and racist impulses, if any, to those who feel qualified to cast the first stone. Having been guilty of racism myself, along with so many others in our region, I try to at least avoid also being hypocritical.

But I am perfectly willing to attack her for what she does to the South. This is my part of the world, and with all its faults, I still feel a deep attachment to it. And it irritates me no end when it is made, as it has been for generations, the butt of jokes. It irritates me still more when our own people join in on the joke-making, as if to curry favor with the rest of the country by saying, in effect, "Yeah, we sho' are backward, ain't we, honey?"

My ear finds a normal, soft, Southern accent natural and pleasant. It finds an exaggerated "South'un" manner of speaking, with extra and unnecessary "y'alls" thrown in here and there, like fingernails scraping on a chalkboard.

My personal criticism of Paula Deen is that she is a grown-up Honey Boo-Boo, making a mockery of the region that nurtured her in order to rake in the cash. The South ought to have had enough of this by now.

Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."

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