By now, you probably know that Paula Deen, Food Network star, has been let go after details of a deposition she gave in a sexual harassment lawsuit were given to the press. In that deposition, Deen admitted to using sexist and racist slurs, sexist slurs more recently than racist.
Some of the reaction to this has been brilliantly painful, such as the Twitter activity on the #paulasbestdishes hashtag. Some of it has been merely painful, such as the defenses of her by her fans on Facebook.
Some of it is probably well intentioned but badly misses the mark. The perennial example of this sort of thing is the person who thinks the best way to denigrate Deen is by talking about her weight. Other people suggest that Deen was already a joke before the deposition, a person who would deep fry a ball of fat to give it extra flavor or someone with [gasp] a Southern accent.*
I get what comments like these are trying to do. They’re trying to spare the hurt of people who Deen’s comments targeted by minimizing her. There’s just one little problem. The emotional pain of a situation like this exists and should be recognized , but it’s one of the least ugly bits of the scenario that we’re talking about.
To illustrate, let me reproduce one part of the deposition that’s gotten some coverage. I’ve removed anything that isn’t the conversation between Deen and the person questioning her.
Q: Okay. So was Lisa ever present when you discussed with Brandon what kind of wedding you’d like to have?
A: I don’t recall that. I recall– […] I remember us talking about the meal.
And I remember telling them about a restaurant that my husband and I had recently visited. And I’m wanting to think it was in Tennessee or North Carolina or somewhere, and it was so impressive. The whole entire wait staff was middle-aged black men, and they had on beautiful white jackets with a black bow tie. I mean, it was really impressive.
And I remember saying I would love to have servers like that, I said, but I would be afraid that somebody would misinterpret.
Q: The media might misinterpret it?
A: Yes, or whomever–
A: –is so shallow that they would read something to it.
Q: Were they dressed in white shorts and bow ties?
A: No, they were dressed in white jackets.
Q: White jackets?
A: Dinner jackets.
Q: And a bow tie?
A: And a bow tie and black trousers, and they were incredible.
Q: Okay. And you said something–
A: These were men that had made their living off of service and people in a restaurant.
A: It was–I was so impressed.
Q: Okay. And they were all black men?
A: Yes. Professional servers and waiters.
Q: And when you described it to Miss Jackson, did you mention the race of–well, you had to have mentioned the race of the servers–
A: Of course I would–
Q: –because that’s the part that–
A: –because that’s what we just experienced.
Q: Right. Do you know what word you used to identify their race?
A: I would have used just what I just told you.
Q: Black or African-American?
A: Black. I would use the word black.
A: I don’t usually use African-Americans [sic].
A: I try to go with whatever the black race is wanting to call themselves at each given time. I try to go along with that and remember that.
Q: Okay. So is there any reason that you could not have done something just like that but have people of different races?
A: Well, that’s what made it […] so impressive. These were professional. I’m not talking about somebody that’s been a waiter for two weeks. I’m talking about these were professional middle-aged men, that probably made a very, very good living–
A: –at this restaurant. They were trained. The–it–it was the whole picture, the setting of the restaurant, the servers, their professionalism.
Q: Is there any reason you couldn’t have found middle-aged professional servers who were of different races?
A: Listen, it was not important enough to me to even fight, to reproduce what that restaurant had. I was just simply expressing an experience that my husband and I had, and I was so impressed.
Q: Did you describe it as a–that that would be a true southern wedding, words to that effect?
A: I don’t know.
Q: Do you recall using the words “really southern plantation wedding”?
A: Yes, I did say I would love for Bubba to experience a very southern style wedding, and we did that. We did that.
Q: Okay. You would love for him to experience a southern style plantation wedding?
Q: That’s what you said?
A: Well, something like that, yes. And–
Q: Okay. And is that when you went on to describe the experience you had had at the restaurant in question?
A: Well, I don’t know. We were probably talking about the food or–we would have been talking about something to do with service at the wedding, and–
[Discussion establishing who was present.]
Q: Is there any possibility, in your mind, that you slipped and used the word “nigger”?
A: No, because that’s not what these men were. They were professional black men doing a fabulous job.
Q: Why did that make it a–if you would have had servers like that, why would that have made it a really southern plantation wedding?
A: Well, it–to me, of course I’m old but I ain’t that old, I didn’t live back in those days but I’ve seen pictures, and the pictures that I’ve seen, that restaurant represented a certain era in America.
A: And I was in the south when I went to this restaurant. It was located in the south.
Q: Okay. What era in America are you referring to?
A: Well, I don’t know. After the Civil War, during the Civil War, before the Civil War.
Q: Right. Back in an era where there were middle-aged black men waiting on white people.
A: Well, it was not only black men, it was black women.
Q: Sure. And before the Civil War–before the Civil War, those black men and women who were waiting on white people were slaves, right?
A: Yes, I would say that they were slaves.
A: But I did not mean anything derogatory by saying I loved their look and their professionalism.
There is then a brief bit about how people would have talked if Deen had hired an all-black waitstaff for her brother’s wedding and how she was sad that she couldn’t just afford to have that restaurant from a state or two away come cater the wedding. Apparently it was a great disappointment that she couldn’t go back, even for the brief period of a wedding reception, to those days when black men (and women) dressed in uniforms that robbed them of individuality and served white people ever so professionally.
Are those statements incredibly, face-palmingly lacking in self-awareness? Yes. Are they the statements of a clown?
No, those are the statements of someone whose cooking empire is estimated to have brought her $17 million last year. Those are the statements of someone making hiring decisions, both for that wedding and for the restaurant at the center of the sexual harassment suit, as well as for whatever staff she personally oversees. Whether you personally think her schtick is silly, this is a person people like and look up to.
And she thinks it would be nice if people would look away long enough for her to recreate that moment of race-based servitude that she so enjoyed. She thinks middle-aged men with bow ties and proper professional deference aren’t nigger–but that some other, undefined group of black people are. She thinks “nigger” and “pussy” are fine and dandy things to call people who have scared her or pissed her off.
That’s already bad in someone with next to no power. Paula Deen isn’t someone with next to no power. Maybe you already laughed at her for something that has nothing to do with this deposition. Fine. But that doesn’t mean the rest of us can just dismiss this–and her–now. This isn’t clowning around.
*You don’t really want to make me do the work to explain to you why that last one is bad, do you?