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.

 

A Political Parable

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My children had an argument this morning.  This, in and of it itself, is hardly news.  None of us are morning people, none of us are happy to be awake at such a dreadful hour, and kindness doesn’t come naturally to any of us before, say, nine.  Therefore, arguments are a regular occurrence in my lamp lit early morning kitchen. They will argue over anything at all.  Just this week alone the kids had a heated discussion over whether or not any of the Jonas brothers can really sing, they fought over the last protein bar available for packed lunches, and they nearly went to blows over someone wearing someone else’s hair band.  I wish I was just kidding about all this.

This morning’s argument was about Box Tops for Education, which is a fundraising program for schools offered by General Mills.  The company prints small squares with the Box Tops for Education Logo on the packaging of many of their products, and will donate ten cents for each logo a school can collect and send back to them.  The General Mills product is almost always way more expensive than the other brands, but I am just idiot enough to buy their products to get the dime from General Mills.  In any case, it’s a big money earner for our school, and heaven knows the school needs the money more than ever.

It started while the girls ate breakfast. I was making lunches. I needed a sharpie to write names on the lunch bags, and so I was rifling around in our junk drawer looking for one.  I keep the plastic sandwich bags that house our Box Tops in the same drawer, and my youngest daughter, I’ll call her Angel #3, saw me toss the bags aside in my search.  Her baggie, the one that had her name on it, was nearly bursting, the zip top stretching to accommodate its contents.  You see, my littlest girl is motivated by the contest at school.  The class that brings in the most box tops gets a prize at the end, and she wants the prize. This time the prize will be an ice cream party, which in her eyes, beats the heck out of the extra recess the administration usually offers.  So she has gone to the trouble to search for the packages with Box Tops when she has been to the store with me.  She has spent time after her homework is done looking for any  Box Tops we might have missed in the pantry, and she has dutifully cut them out and put them in her plastic bag to bring into school on the appointed date.

Angel #2 only had two box tops floating around in her sandwich baggie, and I think I put one of those in there because I felt sorry for her.

#3 asked me happily, “when are we supposed to bring in the box tops this time?” I could tell she was excited to bring in her big haul.

#2 looked over her shoulder, and seeing the difference in the number of box tops in her plastic bag vs. the number in her sister’s, said to her younger sister, with her mouth full of toast, “you should share some of those with me. I hardly have any.”

#3 knitted her eyebrows while she missed a beat, considering her answer.  When she spoke, her voice was raised. She was irritated. “But I’m the one who cut them out!  Besides, our class in is second place.  We need every one of mine.”   She emphasized the word ‘mine.’ I didn’t like the tone of that at all. It sounded selfish to me, and I don’t like selfishness in my children.

Angel #2, who didn’t miss a beat, snapped back, her voice a level higher and louder than her sister’s, “No fair!  You guys have so many! We’re in fifteenth place.  Come on! Just give me ten or fifteen of those box tops.  You have a huge pile of ‘em!”  and then in a quiet but firm voice she commanded,  ”Mom, make her share.”

I can’t stand it when my kids order me around, but this time I didn’t scold because I wanted to stay out of the fray.  Oftentimes when they argue, I will intervene, especially if one of them is clearly in the wrong, or if injury is imminent, but this morning I was operating on very little sleep and I honestly didn’t have the energy to deal with it.  I was hoping I could just let them work it out on their own this time.

And then Angel #3 got angry.  “IT’S NOT MY FAULT YOUR CLASS IS SO LAZY!!!”  She shouted at the absolute top of her lungs into the face of her sister.  She nearly lifted herself off her chair with the strength of her emotions.  When I looked at her, though, her face didn’t match her voice.  Her upper lip was trembling.

I groaned inwardly, I’m going to have to get involved in this one.  I opened my mouth to settle the issue, and then closed it again because I really didn’t know what was fair. After I missed my own beat, I dodged the issue altogether and told them to go brush their teeth.  By the time they pulled on their backpacks and we all started walking to the school bus stop, they were great friends again, but I was still thinking about their disagreement.  I know the argument will come up again when the Box Top deadline comes around, and I better have my policy worked out by then.

I watched them each climb up the big step onto the school bus and take their seats, laughing with their friends.  I blew my usual kisses and I waved my usual waves. The bus pulled away in a gaseous rumble, and as I started to trudge back up the hill through the wet grass my thoughts returned to the Box Top situation.

Actually, I thought they both had good points.

My older daughter had good reason, I thought, to be a little short on Box Tops.  She has been working her tail off on homework every night.  Third grade homework requires about an hour. Fifth grade homework requires at least two hours, sometimes more.  By the time Angel #2 finishes, she has to have dinner and shower and go to bed.  She has no time for Box Top hunting like her less burdened third grade sister.  Clearly, Angel #2 works harder than Angel#3. The problem is that Angel #2 doesn’t produce box tops with her work, and today’s argument was about Box Tops.

By the time I unlocked the door to come back into the house I was in favor of making Angel#3 share.  How can I be against sharing?  Don’t all parents want their children to be generous, to help those who are less fortunate than they are?  I do. I’ve probably spent thousands of hours convincing, cajoling, and pressuring my children to share with one another.  We actually have a rule in our family: if you have something good to share, share it!  Besides, what would #3 really be sacrificing?  Another scoop of ice cream?  Scoops of ice cream are in plentiful supply at our house.  Therefore, I should continue my policy, shouldn’t I?  Shouldn’t I be consistent and make her share?

But wait, hold on a minute– making #3 share didn’t seem quite fair to me, either.  Shouldn’t the one who worked so hard to build her resources be allowed to enjoy the fruits of her own labor?  I also want to instill in my children a strong work ethic. I want them to know that hard work pays off.  Forced sharing teaches the opposite.  What if I make her share and her class misses their ice cream party as a result? What would the girls learn from that?  Angel #2 would learn to depend on her sister for her box top supply, and Angel #3 would learn not to bother to collect Box Tops at all.  And the long term result would be that General Mills would donate less money to our school, and then everyone would suffer.

And why do we go to the trouble of collecting box tops in the first place?  Isn’t it to improve the educational opportunities for all the kids in the school, not just the kids who get to eat the ice cream?   It feels backwards to me, but it looks like the immoral choice (not sharing) is actually better for everyone.  Okay then, I won’t make Angel #3 share her Box Tops.

But if I don’t make her share, I know I will have to deal with the accusation that #3 gets special treatment, because she had the good luck to be born last, and therefore doesn’t have to spend so much time on homework.

My mind is spinning in this endless circular line of thinking.  I’m glad I have a little more time to make a decision.