Monday, July 1, 2013

My Shady Grove (and Paula Deen is here)

Hello! I'm a young, southern-born and raised white guy who is about to talk about race. Make your decisions about whether you want to read this post now. I warned you. White. Young. Southern. Race. If any of those things immediately send chills down your spine, raise your hackles, or otherwise put you into a head space where your inclination is to feed me to a Sarlacc (what's up my Star Wars, peeps?!), then by all means head over to Emergency Cute Stuff and look at fluffy baby animals instead.

Sarlacc...not Emergency Cute Stuff...Also, a place to toss any GOP you have lying around.
Everybody ready? Going there in 3... 2... 1...



I grew up on a street that was locally known as Shady Grove. That was not the name on the street sign. Wasn't even close to the name on the street sign. The street was called Owl. Because...well, who the hell knows, but there you have it. Shady Grove was in a town of less than 600 - population count my senior year of high school put it around 585. So it was one tiny street in one tiny town in the middle of east Texas. That tiny street had maybe a few (read: 3) dozen families throughout its extremities, possibly more or less depending on how far off Shady Grove's barely paved road you wanted to count and how far into the woods you wanted to keep numbering families. Paved roads were not necessarily guaranteed where I'm from. (A place where dial-up internet is still a norm, as neither cable nor DSL has come to that town. Yes, I'm serious. You should see what my parents look like on Skype. 3 giant pixels and the voice of R2-D2.)

So, for that few dozen families, there were 2 Baptist churches. The first being Shady Grove Baptist and then a second whose name I can't recall. It was overly long and farther from my house and not nearly as musical. They were, both of them, southern black Baptist churches. If you're from the south, you immediately know what I'm talking about. The gospel singers in those churches would put any Top 40 singer to shame. Services lasted from before I woke up on Sunday morning until long after my family had eaten breakfast, gone to Sunday school, attended church, went 'to town' about 30 minutes away to have lunch with whatever group of families we'd decided we were friends with that Sunday, and finally come back home. They were there all day long. I was both awed by it and quite grateful I wasn't an attendee, as I barely had the patience for our hour-long dour services, much less an all-day Jesus fest.

What I'm saying is that I was a white boy on a mostly black street in the south.


And, immediately, I'm sure most folks that read a sentence like that make assumptions about who I think I am and what I think I know and what I think I get to talk about with what I think of as clout. To be honest, you're probably quite wrong and probably quite correct.

I can romanticize my childhood when I want. Such as:
My black friends and I would meet up in the summer and walk down to Miss Ruby's house, where she had set up a snow cone stand. I don't know how she kept the ice so cold, but it felt colder than regular ice. Possibly because it was nearly 100 degrees colder than the outside temperature. We'd select a flavor - my favorite was the rather grim sounding Tiger Blood - and then go off and play in the woods for hours.
I can sound all 'one of the people' when I have a mind. But, fuck if that doesn't sound as fake and vaguely racist as can be, huh? The truth of the matter is I had black friends, but not as many as I had white friends. Yes, we had black friends that spent the night at our house and came to parties and rode our horses and played with us when we were little and were vaguely apathetic with us when we were teenagers. I'd visit my friend at her house and watch her mother, a hair stylist, watching in awe at the different tools and washes she used to do the neighbor ladies' hair.

So now that I've spent several paragraphs ostensibly establishing my cred to talk about race, which I swear I didn't set out to do, let's say hi to Paula Deen.

Hi Paula. Oh! Did you bake me a pie? How sweet and charming and southern of you. Put it over there with the rest of the covered dishes. 
So here's the thing. From the news stories I've read, what happened is this. A woman (who is white, in case you didn't know...whether that changes anything for you) filed a lawsuit against Deen and related parties alleging sexual and racial discrimination. Like with many news stories such as this, the facts of what happened are going to pale in comparison with the bigger hooplah, but by her own admission the plaintiff in the case never heard Deen use a racial slur. Ever. During the deposition for the lawsuit, Deen, a 66-year-old from Georgia, was asked if she had ever in her life used the n-word. To which she responded, "Yes, of course. But that's just not a word that we use. I don't -- I don't know. As time has gone on things have changed since the 60's in the south."

She also, apparently, had plans for a "southern style wedding complete with black-waiters-as-slaves"...or something.
Jackson said she was put in charge of arrangements for Bubba’s wedding, which Deen apparently said she wanted to have a “true Southern plantation-style theme.” What, pray tell, does that mean? “Well what I would really like is a bunch of little n----rs 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,” Deen reportedly elaborated. Alas, the wedding Deen envisioned never came to be. “We can’t do that because the media would be on me about that,” she reportedly told Jackson. In her testimony, Deen said that she actually was referencing the “beautiful white jackets with a black bow-tie” she saw the wait staff of “middle-aged black men” wearing at a restaurant she visited “in Tennessee or North Carolina or somewhere.”
There is a sexual harassment component of the lawsuit that deals with her brother, not her, in that he allegedly pulled up porn at work and showed it to people. (Which has happened in some context or other at every single place of work I've ever had, up to and including the courtroom.) But, that has quite little to do with Deen, and, as such, will not be explored here. For the full transcript of Deen's deposition, you can click here. The complaint is that Deen fostered, and allows to continue, a workplace in which racism and sexual harassment is tolerated and laughed about.

A white woman, born in 1947 and raised in Georgia, who would have been 13 in 1960, and therefore a teenager and young adult during the 60s...in Georgia...in the 1960s...

What I'm getting at is that if anybody out there thought for one moment that Paula Deen hadn't used the n-word at some point in her life, which was what she was asked during her deposition, they are an absolute fool. Definitively. Fool. The other problem here is actually a set of problems. Deen represents all things of southern decadence. She's wealthy - though for 2/3 of her life she was very much not. She serves up fried, fattening dishes that are quintessentially seen as southern. She loves the word 'y'all' and seems like everyone's granny. Why is all of this a problem? Because people were waiting on a reason to really, really hate her. She was just too damn squeaky clean and likable. First, it happened when she was diagnosed with diabetes...and then subsequently became a spokesperson for a diabetes medication. The situation smacked of karma biting its buttery bite in Deen's butter-loving behind, and it was also eye-rolling in the sense that she seemed to be capitalizing on the opportunity of her illness in order to make a buck.

We've seen it with a lot of people. Sarah Palin. She is white. Wealthy. And when she came out on the scene unexpectedly during the 2008 presidential campaign, she seemed just too poised...in the beginning. Now, due to the 24-hour media cycle, and the heightened level of scrutiny placed on a presidential campaign, we saw the cracks in her armor far earlier in her tenure in the public eye than we saw in Deen's. But, squeaky clean. Hockey mom. Beloved governor. Too good to be true. That mom in PTA who is just too well put together at meetings, who seems to have the ideas that everyone else loves and gets elected to everything, but you just know her husband is cheating on her with someone named Mistress Payne. But, some of what she's become and what came out at the time was the media's doing.

Oh god... I sound like a Sarah Palin fan. I'm not. She turned out to be an uninformed dimwit who's more focused on promoting an religious ideology than being a political leader. Making a point. Badly. Here's a better example:

Martha Stewart. Squeaky clean, definition of. Insanely wealthy. Billionaire house decorator. Her empire seemed invincible. Magazine. Television show. Products for pets, scrapbooking, sitting on, sitting in, sitting around, and making stuff to do all of the above. It seemed she was loved by every single woman, gay man, and member of Saturday Night Live's audience in the world. If Sarah Palin was the PTA mom of your nightmares, Martha Stewart was the divorcee in your social circle who you didn't want to invite to your party, but did anyway just to see what she would make. You didn't want her at your party, because you bought paper plates, and her parties all had actual plates hand painted with a monogrammed date commemorating the event that you could then take home if you wanted a hand painted commemorative plate for a random party at Martha's. Thankfully, she got indicted and sent to jail for insider trading, or who the hell knows how popular she could have become?!

Shout Outs to Ana Gasteyer!
Want to know how I know Martha Stewart's jail time was because people hated her and not because what she did was all that bad - illegal, yes, but common as fuck - because she went to jail and not one person that helped to bankrupt America has yet to serve jail time. As soon as the public got their opportunity, they lambasted Stewart to within an inch of her life.

It's astonishing to me that Oprah is still Oprah, because let me tell you... Just as surely as the sun rises, if the American public ever gets even the hint of an honest-to-Oprah scandal, a really juicy one, they will turn on her with a ferocity and quickness the likes of which the world has never seen. Too squeaky clean. Too good.

Back to Paula Deen. Hi Paula.

If you'd like to laugh for several days, Google Image search 'Paula Deen funny'. 
Using the n-word is gross. If I hear someone say it, caring neither for context or situation, I immediately think ill of them. And, the same applies here. Yes. What Paula Deen said was gross. The entire situation is gross. The allegations, if all true, are deplorable. It was wrong. Now, here's the thing. If you're going to stop buying Deen's products because she said it...again...I have to wonder if you were living in a fantasy world where rich, white, southern people raised in the 1960s were best buddies with black people and have never uttered such a term in their life.

And she's currently getting the Martha Stewart treatment. Her shows have all been cancelled. Pretty much every store that carries her products has pulled them from the shelves. There isn't a network on TV that will put her in front of the camera. She has become our quintessential rich, white, southern racist. And we are going to hate her for years. And every single person who has a high horse is going to get on it, if they haven't already, and talk so much shit about her, about how language like that is inexcusable and that there should be zero tolerance and that she should have her fortune taken from her and blah blah blah. I've seen it all over social media already. All I keep thinking is...

If everybody 'always hated her' - as everyone talking about her is saying - then how in the hell did she get so damn rich?!

There was a post I saw on a website called Afroculinaria, in which the author, a mixed race cultural and culinary historian, writes an open letter to Paula Deen. I'd like to quote a bit from his letter:

To be part of the national surprise towards you saying the word “nigger” in the past (I am a cultural and culinary historian and so therefore I am using the word within context…) is at best na├»ve and at worst, an attempt to hide the pervasiveness of racism, specifically anti-Black racism in certain currents of American culture—not just Southern...When you said, “of course,” I wasn’t flabbergasted, I was rather, relieved…In fact we Black Southerners have an underground saying, “better the Southern white man than the Northern one, because at least you know where he stands…” but Paula I knew what you meant, and I knew where you were coming from. I’m not defending that or saying its right—because it’s that word—and the same racist venom that drove my grandparents into the Great Migration almost 70 years ago...Some have said you are not a racist. Sorry, I don’t believe that…I am more of the Avenue Q type—everybody’s—you guessed it—a little bit racist...It takes a lifetime to unlearn taught prejudice or socially mandated racism or even get over strings of negative experiences we’ve had with groups outside of our own...Don’t be fooled by the claims that Black people don’t watch you. We’ve been watching you. We all have opinions about you. You were at one point sort of like our Bill Clinton. (You know the first Black president?) When G. Garvin and the Neely’s and the elusive B Smith (who they LOVED to put on late on Saturday nights or early Sunday mornings!) were few and far between, you were our sorta soul mama, the white lady with the gadonkadonk and the sass and the signifying who gave us a taste of the Old Country-which is for us—the former Confederacy and just beyond. Furthermore, as a male who practices an “alternative lifestyle” (and by the way I am using that phrase in bitter sarcastic irony), it goes without saying that many of my brothers have been you for Halloween, and you are right up there with Dolly Parton, Dixie Carter and Tallullah Bankhead of old as one of the muses of the Southern gay male imagination. We don’t despise you, we don’t even think you made America fat. We think you are a businesswoman who has made some mistakes, has character flaws like everybody else and in fact is now a scapegoat....Yes Paula, in light of all these things, you are the ultimate, consummate racist, and the one who made us fat, and the reason why American food sucks and ……you don’t believe that any more than I do.
My problem, to go back to Shady Grove and my childhood for a moment, is that I have a grandfather who was born in 1931. A member of a large family. A kinder man there never was. He's the grandfather who taught my brother and me how to fish. He's the grandfather who put in the tile in my mother's bathroom. He's the grandfather who, with open arms, welcomed those black friends of mine, of my brother, into his home...taught them how to fish...fed them at the same dinner table...sat next to them at our house during our gatherings. He's also the man that, when I was a teenager and loudly playing whatever junk was coming off the radio speakers of my favorite Top 40 station, asked if I was playing n--- music. By which, he was asking if the singer was black. He actually thought the song was catchy. Wasn't casting aspersions. But, to him, that was the word you used. I was shocked. I was grossed out. All of a sudden I didn't know this man. This horrible, terrible racist. I was confused beyond belief.

I spoke about it with my mother, his daughter, who explained to me that my grandfather was a white guy who grew up in the south during a horrible time in our nation's history. As such, there are parts of his vocabulary that are ingrained. She said she wasn't and couldn't apologize for it, but that I needed to remember him as the man he is and not the word he said. Honestly, to this day, I don't know that I've heard him say that word again. But, that one time stuck with me. Haunts me a bit.

I was raised to respect other people. The n-word was not used in my house. The gay f- word was not used in my house. Racial slurs. Sexual slurs. Slurry slurs. Tasteless jokes. None of them used in my house. And, to this day, I carry that tradition with me. But, I was raised in the 90s and became an adult in the mid 00's.

But, I'll leave you with these thoughts...

I'm very, very confused about how to feel regarding the Paula Deen is The Worst Racist In History scandal. For all of the above reasons and more.

I do not condone, wash over, forget, ignore, or otherwise apologize in any way for racist, homophobic, sexually illicit, or otherwise gross discriminatory behavior. Context aside.

I think what I'm saying is I understand where it came from. That's not forgiving. It's understanding, and, yes, contextualizing it a bit. It's wrong, but it happened. And, how clean and straight is the edge of that knife with which we're currently cutting Deen so low? How many other industries, artists, public figures, have used, are famous for using, racial slurs, either in a humorous, critical, racist, or otherwise voice? Don Imus says 'nappy headed ho's' and gets fired. Prince Harry wears a Nazi costume and women (and men) can't wait to take him to bed. Alec Baldwin, just this week, called someone a queen and said they'd like something in their ass too much...but I don't see those high and mighty folks that have been spending every waking moment on Facebook decrying Deen turning their attentions toward Baldwin.

And, the most confusing thought for me thus far, would I be as willing to let Paula Deen off the hook if she had used the word faggot.

It's all gross. It's all wrong. And it leaves me with and uncomfortable ish in my belly.

You can leave your thoughts below, but if anyone starts a bashing crusade against another commenter, it will be deleted. I want folks to feel safe in sharing their views, as this is a sticky subject for all.

Love and Lyte,

Fire Lyte

11 comments:

  1. I found this "scandal" to be ridiculous. Honestly, she admitted that she had previously said a naughty word. Oh no! Bring out the firing squad that someone said a racially charged word!! Ahhh! Okay, now that I've calmed down....
    Personally I think she is nothing more than a scapegoat for something. I haven't yet figured out what though.
    I am a white woman. I grew up poorer than dirt (in 2003, my family of 6 grossed only $11,000). I also grew up in a neighborhood where whites were the minority. I heard that word on a daily basis. I knew it was wrong, but I still heard it.
    As an adult, I still hear the word, but now it is celebrated in rap music. I find this more offensive than when I hear my very prejudiced white MIL say it. She doesn't say it in public but these music stars can. My husband and I have forbidden his family from saying that word in front of our 5yr old and we do not play any song that has that word in it.
    I do not understand the horrors that are a white woman admitting to using a word previously, but rap stars can currently say the word with no waves made. Perhaps it truly is like my friend (black, if it makes a difference) explained to me when we were 6.
    "Don't you know? Only black people can call black people that. Just like only white people can call white people cracker. It's racist the other way around."

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    1. Rebecca, I agree. I believe she is being used as a scapegoat for a host of issues. Not just the n-word, because as many have pointed out, that is just 1 part of the case. But, because it's easy and fun to hate on her. The diabetes. The butter. The sandwich made out of a donut. The squeaky clean southern charm. She's really, really rich.

      And...she's a woman. If this were Paul Deen, he'd still have a tv show. For some reason, men seem to get away with PR nightmares like this much easier. But a wealthy woman at the top of her own media empire? Well...she's probably a horrible bitch behind the scenes. Right?

      It's all gross and conflicting and uncomfortable

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  2. I liked reading your point of view. A lot. Especially knowing that I'm not the only one with weirdly "ehhhhh..." feelings about the whole thing. I mean, I never met the woman, I don't know her in person, so I have refrained so far from taking a side in this Big Media Drama of the Moment. From what I understand, so far it's all just allegations, besides the whole "have you ever said this word" testimony, right? I'll leave it to the court to judge any legal stuff, because it could end up just being someone trying to pull a "I had Justin Bieber's baby" type dealy. Or it might be true. I don't know. But until then... I guess... is it bad that I don't really care? What Paula Deen says and does doesn't really have any effect on me and my day-to-day life. Of course it's a good jumping point to have the discussion like you've posted here, to take something the media is all hyped up about and consider the real world aspect of it, but otherwise it's generally just media hype to me. *sigh!*

    ANYWAY.

    Besides all that, "3 giant pixels and the voice of R2-D2" made me laugh SO HARD. Beeeeeen therrrrrrre!

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  3. I LOVED your post....and I completely feel the same way. Thank you.....

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  4. I also was born and raised in Texas(although a wee bit earlier than you my darling) and now live in the industrial Northeast where almost every person I have met assumes I am a racist. Like in your home, those words were never used in mine. I also went to church an hour each Sunday and was taught to actually love my neighbors and treat everyone the same way. Have I ever in my life said the n-word? Who hasn't? Honestly? When I was coming up we were listening (as sad sad white children who thought we were oh so hipster) to Ice T and NWA. If I was asked the same question put to Paula Deen in a deposition I would have the same answer she did. I don't believe I have ever called a person the n-word nor did I ever hear any person in my circle of family and friends, but the word has been spoken aloud.

    I agree with your take that we love to build people up and then take them down. I think that Paula Deen is being punished for being Southern, as Martha Stewart was punished for being rich and kind of perfect.

    However, I do not mean to say to black people "get over it" because it was in the past anymore than I would ever say to women "get over it... you are allowed to have a job now". Injustice takes generations to get over and these injustices have yet to end. Paula Deen is perhaps getting what she deserves, but then there are a lot of people (5 of whom sit on the Supreme Court and many of whom fill the Texas State Legislature or are the Governors of Arizona, Ohio, and New Jersey etc) who are not getting what they deserve.

    All of that being said, I had a conversation this week with someone very close to me who told me they thought that because I am not black I cannot have a valid opinion on this topic, just as they thought I was too excited about the Supreme Court ruling on DOMA for a heterosexual. But I think that we need the conversation and I was so happy to see your thoughtful and well written post.

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  5. Hi. Fire Lyte, I tagged you in a challenge post. I hope you don't mind. I think it would be really interesting to see your answers. You can see the rules and stuff here: http://elvensiirie.blogspot.com/2013/07/ive-been-tagged.html

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  6. Wonderful post. Wonderful. I feel that you hit the nail right on the head.

    What is just as bad, in a way, is that the people are turning so vicious on each OTHER. One person acts like Deen should be put to death, considering the vehemence she puts forward into ripping Deen apart, and if anyone in ANY way says anything other than also ripping Deen apart, well, then that person just can't deal with you and your stupidity. You must be stupid since you have your own *different* opinion that is not in agreement with hers. If you do not agree then you think shaming and slurs and gay bashing and discrimination and child and animal abuse are all okay! We can't possibly be friends if you don't think Deen is the anti-Christ!

    Extreme pot calling the kettle black, much?

    On the other side of the spectrum, there is a person ( and I am just using general terms here for he and she ) who is a staunch supporter of Deen, and thinks this is all "hogwash" and a big bunch of sensationalism and sure she should not have done those things but it is really as bad as all this that has happened, normal people do it every day and this does not happen to them...and if you are so against her than you are stupid and wrong and you must be one of those tree hugging hippies who thinks everyone should love everyone and you are an idiot because THAT IS NOT HOW THE REAL WORLD WORKS! We can't possibly be friends because you don't think Deen is being judged to harshly!!"

    Same pot, same kettle.

    Forgive my bad analogy, but the world is not so black and white. If ONE person ( celebrity ) can be burned at the stake for this, then shouldn't every single person, normal, celeb, politician, whatever, be held to the same exact standards? Does that mean I can go my grocery store manager's house and take his money, take his store, totally destroy him because I heard him call someone a racial slur, or smack a female employee on the ass as she walked by? No? Why not?

    Oh right, because he is not a role model. He is not famous. Yet, I give him a hell of a lot more money since I need food to live than I do Paula. Paula means nothing to me. I have never given her one red cent of my money. Yet my grocery store manager gets an insane amount of money from me every year. Shouldn't I care MORE about what HE said, than Deen said?

    "But you can not shop there, since you heard these things."

    True, but I am dirt poor and can hardly afford the gas to get to the ONE grocer in my tiny town. I do not have the options to go elsewhere all the time. We all have the option of turning these celebs into what they are. And we can take it away, as we have seen. All they are doing is making Deen a sacrifice, because everyday people can't do this to other everyday people, or the people we elect into office who do SO MUCH WORSE than Paula EVERY DAY. For that reason alone, it bugs me. What she did was wrong, but what is being done to her is not exactly right either.

    The people turning on EACH OTHER is CERTAINLY not right.

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  7. Well here's the thing for me: Let's suppose that she didn't use the n-word to describe her antebellum fantasy wedding. She said African Americans or blacks instead. It still sounds pretty damning. At absolute best it is completely racially insensitive. At worse, yeah racist.

    This isn't so much about the n-word for me. As you, and the author of the culinary article you referenced, mentioned you'd have to be pretty frickin' naive not to assume that an older Southern person hasn't said that at least once.

    I talked with a friend of mine who was raised in the South. The use of the n-word, while completely abhorrent, might sorta kinda be understood (but not excused) by an older person because of the way they were raised. But there is very little to understand about anyone in the modern era, who grew up in the US, who thinks that Tara wedding theme was bad only because the press might see it as such. Her point is that it implies that folks from the South are too dumb to see how that is a bad thing. It reinforces the whole "stupid hick" stereotype. Perhaps an older Southern person can't escape his/her upbringing and sometimes devolves back into using a slur at times (and that's still an eyeroller for me - but my bias is I'm a Northerner and a minority), but that whole scenario she admitted to seems to indicate a more pervasive racist mindset. And then of course, if the allegations that black employees had to use the back door are true, yeah, I can't see how that isn't racist either.

    Is she the worst racist of all time? No. I also think Prince Harry is a spoiled insensitive prat, Don Imus is an idiot and that Alec Baldwin is a creep. And just to be fair, I was an asshole back in my youth when I used slurs as well (I know better now, but yep, I was a jerk). I don't know how fair or just it is that she loses pretty much everything she built up over this, but people who are 100% defending her come hell or high water make me shake my head.

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