Of Paula Deen, Scarlett O’hara, and Why We Should Give a Damn

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 Oh, fiddlesticks, Miss Paula, what ‘d you have to go and do that for? 

Until now I’ve found Paula Deen’s scandals to be kind of funny.  Remember when she got hit in the head with a turkey at a charity event? I know it makes me not such a nice person, but I couldn’t help but laugh about that one. Remember the accusations of hypocrisy she fielded when she announced she suffered from Type Two Diabetes?  Well, Duh. What did people expect with the way she cooks?  That she would be able to maintain a seventeen inch waist?

This time though, I’m angry.  This time there is no humor in her behavior.  I’m angry that she’s been cruel and bigoted.  It was wishful thinking, maybe, but I honestly thought this kind of behavior had gone the way of the hoop skirt.  It hasn’t.  I discovered while doing some research for this piece that cross burnings are still relatively common (and notably not limited to the American South).  I also stumbled upon more than a few white supremacy websites that contained language and images so violent they made the hair on my arms stand up, and brought tears to my eyes.  I’m angry I have to be reminded of the ugly truth.  The whole thing just ticks me off.  

 There is another reason I’m angry at Paula Deen. This reason is smaller and probably less valid than the other, but I’m angry nonetheless.  I’m mad at her because she has contributed, mightily, to the stereotypes assigned to southern white people.  You know the ones, that we are not very bright, and that we hate people of color.  For years I’ve been complaining that every time I see a southerner, male or female, in the media, they are ether acting stupid, or wearing a white hood.  As of now I’ve lived half of my adult life up north, and I see this alternate stereotype in practice all the time.  I am tired of acting as the ambassador whose job it is to represent compassionate/enlightened southerners up here.  And now, the “Lady” and her sons are perpetuating both stereotypes.  Thanks Paula, I appreciate that (insert sarcastic tone here).

Certainly the media, including Paula Deen, is largely to blame for making us look stupid.  Think Gomer Pyle.  Think Dukes of Hazard. I would be as rich as Paula Deen herself if I had a dollar for every time someone heard I was from Georgia, and said to me “Aren’t you the people who elected Cooter to congress?”  (I must answer “Yes”, although, to be fair, I hear he was a pretty good congressman).  How about Toddlers and Tiaras?  Don’t even get me started on Honey Boo Boo!   Not too long ago I saw a news report about a forest fire, and, of course, they interviewed a guy facing the fire on the roof of his trailer with a garden hose, saying in a decidedly southern voice, “I ain’t leavin’!”  Clearly this guy was not the brightest bulb on the tree.  Why do they air this kind of stuff?  Because the ratings are high, obviously.  And the ratings are high because people like to laugh at stupid.  Heck, I love to laugh at stupid.  The thing is, I’m sure there are idiots in every village as far north as Santa’s workshop.  Why oh why must they target the south?

Even southerners perceive people with a southern accent to be stupid.  I went to graduate school in Athens, Ga., and I was told that “all remnants of your ‘regional’ accent should be left behind because people outside the south might conclude that y’all, well…, aren’t very smart.” It’s a sad fact, this misperception, but it’s true.  In your mind, put a southern accent on the smartest person you know.  What happens, in your mind, to that person’s IQ?  See?       

It’s bad enough that people think we’re stupid.  It’s even worse that we are all assumed to be bigots.  Think of all the movies you’ve seen depicting racial violence and discrimination, like Mississippi Burning, The Help, A Time to Kill, and even Gone with the Wind, which is breathtakingly offensive to blacks.  Think of all the news clips we saw in September at the 50th anniversary of MLK’s dream speech, news clips of young men and women being fire-hosed, of white only signs above water fountains, of little girls in bobby socks and crinolines who needed police protection to go to school, and of similarly dressed white women (mothers!) screaming slurs at aforementioned little girls.  While these snippets of film have rightly exposed the history of the civil rights movement and the truth about how people were treated (back then?), they have also burned their cruel images into all our minds.  I think that to people who have no exposure to the modern south, those images feel current.  Think of the kindest white man you know, now dress him in a seersucker suit and a southern accent.  Can you picture him in a white hood?  Does he seem a shade sinister? See?  

Do not be mistaken.  If only half of the complaints listed in the lawsuit against Paula Deen, her sons, and her brother are true, she is a bigot, and stupid, and certainly NOT a lady.  According to Daryl K. Washington, a civil rights attorney and blogger at http://www.blacklegalissues.com , the lawsuit alleged that one of Paula’s sons asked a black employee if he would like to “rub the black off” to be more like him.  Offended yet?  I am.  It is alleged that black employees in her restaurant were only allowed to use one bathroom, and weren’t allowed to work the front of the restaurant, and were referred to as the “monkeys in the kitchen.”  Angry yet?  I am.   Ms. Deen is alleged to have asked for some “little niggers” dressed like lawn jockeys to serve at her brother’s wedding!  Her use of the “n” word, no matter when it was used, is blatantly offensive.  Bigoted is what it is.

Treating human beings this way was inexcusable in 1893. It was inexcusable in 1963, and it was more than inexcusable in 1993. It was illegal.  On top of the moral wrong she has done, any business person worth her salt would know that federal law prohibits racial discrimination, and said business woman would have run her business accordingly, to avoid expensive career-ruining lawsuits.  Ms. Deen did not.  Besides, according to the census bureau, about 12% of the population of this country is black.  In the state of Georgia, fully 30 percent are black. One would think Ms. Deen would understand ahead of time that racist behavior would cause a huge loss of profit.  Stupid is what it is.     

Conclusions about southerners being stupid and southerners being racist have become so intertwined that they can no longer be untangled.  But wait, maybe racism and stupidity are entangled for a reason.  Bigotry proves stupidity, no?  

I would expect people to be angry, like me, about Deen’s behavior in this politically correct day and age.  Instead many are flocking to her defense.  All summer there was a campaign of Facebook jokes and cartoons, and photos in the media of Ms. Deen wearing woebegone and tearful expressions, all in support of her.  It is now October and I’m still being asked to ‘like’ Paula Dean by my Facebook page because so and so Facebook friend likes her.  Well, I don’t like her, and I don’t think I’ll start liking her anytime soon.  I even saw Oprah excuse her on Entertainment Tonight, citing the passage of time. (Who’s the ‘lady’ in this situation?  Oprah is.)

I wish I could be as gracious as Oprah, but I’m not.  I don’t buy the claim that discriminatory behavior doesn’t matter because it was so long ago. The reason I think so is this: everyone knows nigger is a bad word.  EVERYONE.  Everyone knows it, and has known it for generations.  I knew it as a child growing up in Georgia in the seventies. I can think of examples of bigotry from my childhood, but I can’t, for the life of me, remember hearing the ‘n word’ being used, not by anyone, not ever, and I attended an elementary school where the Civil War was elegantly called the “War of Northern Aggression” by a specific fifth grade teacher I won’t name.  Margaret Mitchell knew ‘nigger’ was a bad word in the nineteen thirties, and she lets us know she knew it by having Scarlett tell us, who, if she was an actual person instead of a work of fiction, would have known it in the eighteen sixties.   The word was never, ever permitted, not by anyone.  It didn’t matter how bigoted a person was, or is; a lady does not use the ‘n’ word.  Paula Deen had to know twenty years ago that the word nigger was, and is, flat out unacceptable, when the smallest school child knew it.  Therefore, unlike the rest of the world, I choose to hold Ms. Deen responsible for her actions, even if it was 1993.  Think of where you were in your life in 1993.  Did you know nigger was a bad word?  See?         

It makes me mad to see Miss Paula’s crocodile tears.   I’d like to say to her the same words Rhett said to Scarlett: “you are in the exact position of a thief who’s been caught red handed and isn’t sorry he stole but is terribly, terribly sorry he’s going to jail.” I’m not convinced Miss Paula is sorry for her behavior, but I am convinced she’s terribly, terribly sorry she’s lost a large portion of her income.  All that hand wringing is lost on me.

I’ve never really been much of a fan of Miss Paula’s, or much of a customer. I’ve seen her show a few times, and I confess my daughter owns one of her cookbooks, but it was a gift. I do have a Walmart frying pan that had her face on the label.  These things were all fairly accidental, but now I’m going to make an effort not to do business with Paula Deen.  I want to send a message, and the message is this:  I give a damn about equality. I give a damn about equal protection under the law. I give a damn about fairness and cruelty and honesty.  I think you should too.  I’m going send my message with my pocketbook.  I think you should too.  If I find myself in Savannah, which isn’t at all unlikely, I’ll go to Mrs. Wilkes instead of to any of the Deen restaurants, so I can have a delicious and culturally rich meal.  I hope you do too.  Lord knows I don’t need any more cookbooks with high fat recipes, so I’m not going to buy any from Paula Deen.  I don’t think you should either.     

And speaking of the Lord, don’t get me wrong here; I’m all for forgiveness.  I certainly forgive Ms. Deen her offenses, and her offensiveness, but I don’t want to excuse her.  If she is excused, won’t she and others learn that bigotry is okay, that there is no negative consequence for inexcusable behavior, that there is no need for her (and the wide world) to think about what she’s done, that there’s no need for change?  If she sincerely apologized and genuinely changed her thinking about race, I’d be glad to watch her show and/or buy her stuff (converting the recipes to more healthful ones, of course), and in that case, I think you should too.

In the meantime, please know that most of us from the south aren’t like that. Please know that most of us try hard to be fair and just and defend the fourteenth amendment.  Please know that most of us understand that minorities are people who possess thoughts, feelings, desires, goals, needs and opinions, just like those of us with paler skin. Please know that most of us, if we should be offensive, don’t want to be and didn’t mean to be, and in that case, please know that we welcome correction.  Please know that most of us are open to suggestion and education and are willing to work for change.   Most of us have compassion.

Please know that most of us who are raised and churched and educated in the south are neither idiots nor bigots.  Most of us know the truth: that skin is only skin deep, but character goes all the way through.


On Why I Craft:


I take a lot of heat from my friends about being crafty.   They think it’s funny that I like to make things, and that I like to make things that would be much cheaper and easier to buy.  When one of them joked that my living room was beginning to look like the lobby of the Cracker Barrel Restaurant, I started to give my craft projects to charity.  But I still make things.

Even as a child I liked to crochet.  My Grandmother taught me how.  When I was in high school and college, I earned my spending money as a lifeguard, and I crafted to dispel the quiet of the rainy days by making pictures with a scrap of linen and needle and thread.  In my thirties I learned to quilt.  Recently, I took up knitting.  I just can’t help myself; I like to make stuff. 

I used to tell myself I made things because I wanted to fill inevitable empty hours producing something useful, instead of wasting my time watching TV, or reading tabloids in waiting rooms, but I have gradually become aware over the years that I do it for a different reason.   Crafting is therapeutic.  It’s more than therapeutic.  If I do it right, it sets my thoughts to music.  If I find a quiet place, with good light, and allow myself to hear the rhythmic clacking of my knitting needles, or to feel the quilting needle hit my thimble as it rocks melodically through the layers of cloth, I can send my worries over the rhythm of the work, and if I am patient and listen carefully, the rhythm of the work will float the answers back to me.

For the time I embellished a story to a new friend to make a point (former therapists and writers of fiction are at high risk to do this. I am both),  and she perceived that as a lie, and I got a stomachache every time I thought about it: knit one, pearl two, knit one, purl two.  Am I a liar?  Knit one, purl two. Did I mean to hurt her with my story?  No, I meant to help her.  Knit one, purl two.  It isn’t nice to therapize your friends.  Knit one, purl two.  Telling the story, that way, was a mistake.  Knit one, purl two.  Apologize. Knit one, purl two.  A true friend will forgive.  Knit one, purl two.  If not, learn.  Breathe.  Move on.  Knit one, purl two.

For the time my daughter was late, really late, home from the movies with a friend, and I could hear sirens, and I hadn’t really trusted the parent that picked her up: stitch five across blue, five back blue.  The crosses formed by the stitches remind me the angels are with her.  Stitch ten across green, ten back green.  “She is fine,” I tell myself, “They must be out for a coffee, or a coke, or something.”  Stitch one and a half, yellow. The front door finally opens and I find myself misty, and I hug her hard and send her to bed, and I smell alcohol thick on the breath of the mother when she apologizes.  Four stitches down red.  Four stitches up.  Thank you God; thank you God, thank you.   Eight stitches across, green.  Eight stitches back.  

For the time I had a terrible, terrible argument with my husband.  I can remember neither the source nor the resolution of that argument, but it was so bad, it brought the children out of their beds, crying and afraid in their footie pajamas, wild eyed, not knowing where their loyalties should lie.  There was a week of terrifying silence to follow. Needle up, needle down.  Needle up, needle down.  I feared I would not be married at the end of it. Needle up, needle down.  Be patient.  Needle up.  He needs some time.  Needle down.  Keep making his supper and his bed.  Needle up, needle down.   It doesn’t matter.  Needle up, needle down.   Love him anyway.  Needle up, needle down.

For praying my dearest friend through her painful divorce, knit one, purl two. For watching the Twin Towers fall, two stitches across, two stitches back.  For raising children and keeping faith in a husband, needle up, needle down.   The stitches turn to a chant, the chant to prayer, and the prayer to truth.  No matter what I am called to mourn or worry, I can stitch my way through it. 

And that is why I do it; that’s why I craft.  The lobby of the Cracker Barrel be damned.