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CL roundtable discussion: Paula Deen

The celebrity chef is embroiled in controversy after a former employee accused her of being racist (is anyone surprised?)

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Editor's note: Much has been said about celebrity chef Paula Deen and her brother Earl "Bubba" Hiers. Both are embroiled in a lawsuit, brought forth by a former employee of the restaurant Deen and Heirs co-own, that claims Deen used racist and derogatory languageeven supporting the idea of a plantation-themed weddingand that Hiers sexually harassed employees. Some fans have rallied to her side, while others have expressed frustration and disgust. To try to make sense of it all, we gathered Class is in Session columnist Charles Easley, news editor Ana McKenzie and copy editor and regular contributor Emiene Wright for a roundtable discussion on Deen, racism and Southern culture. The following transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Were the Food Network, Smithfield, Walmart and other companies right in severing ties with Paula Deen?

Emiene Wright: Hell yes. You can't tie your multi-jillion dollar brand to a woman that is obviously off the rails, which you can see in her interviews and sad attempts at apologizing yet not taking responsibility for the situation.

Charles Easley: She should be fired, but the reality is that she'll probably be right back on TV. We've seen a trend with that — Don Imus was fired, took a vacation, and returned to radio and television. She's a brand and she makes a lot of money, so that's going to trump anybody's sensibilities about being incensed by what she said.

Are you surprised by what she said?

CE: Other people might be, but I'm not. I grew up in the South, and I'm African American. If you were born and raised in the South, you're going to grow up with very racial aesthetics and filters. It's not so much what she said but the level of how deep-seeded those beliefs are in her. She's so complacent and comfortable in that narrative that it didn't even phase her.

Ana McKenzie: No. I think Paula Deen has shown a history of being malicious. She announced she had diabetes the same day she announced that she was going to be the face of diabetes medication. Not only had she been hiding something that would have seriously affected her brand — she was also monetizing from it. She knows what to say to make a buck.

EW: If that were the case you think she'd hire competent spin people. I don't know if they're incompetent or if she just doesn't listen to anything anyone tells her because these apologies are just digging her deeper in this hole.

AM: I heard an interview with one of her former assistants in which the journalist asked, Had you ever seen or experienced this behavior coming from Paula? She said no and that she knew Paula to be kind and have a good heart. I wonder if the people around her were just blind to it.

CE: What her assistant said is indicative of Southern culture. We're polite, non-combative and not in your face. We don't deal with issues like racism. They're just undergirded in our culture as far as how we interact and the things we say and don't say.

EW: I'm not so sure. That reminds me of a chemistry class I took in high school (I had a big afro then). I was one of two black kids in class and our chemistry would always rag on us and act like we didn't belong there. Finally one day I told him off — I told him to leave his cross and hood at the door — and he kicked me out. The guidance counselor, an older white gentleman, told me he had known the teacher for years and had never seen him be racist. I was like, Dude, you're white. He's not going to say anything racist to you.

What's your take on the support some of Paula Deen's fans have shown her?

What has this situationwhat she said and the reactionproven about us as a country?

CE: It's put to the forefront society's concepts of race. People are protesting not the things she said — they just want her back on her show cooking biscuits. That shows their level of priorities. You can be, for the most part, a law-abiding citizen, a good neighbor, but you can still carry these deeply racist sentiments.

EW: Americans have historical amnesia. Slavery is a blood debt people want to forget about. People say things have changed but because of that nobody really wants to deal consciously with the weight of American history.

Let's put what she said in a different context. If she had said, "We're going to have a Holocaust-themed wedding, that's so charming," people would be like, What the hell are you talking about? But because we don't look at slavery in terms of the Holocaust — which it really was, on an exponential level — we as African Americans don't give our own history that weight that it deserves and mainstream American doesn't give that history the weight it deserves.

CE: Paula Deen has probably been saying stuff like this for a while, in corporate meetings and such, and no one has blinked an eye. If I were so much as to raise my voice people would start backing up, looking at the door, saying, Do we need to call security? If you grow up in a culture where you haven't had to self-censor, you become comfortable with saying the things she did. In her mind she hasn't done anything wrong because it hasn't been challenged historically.

Deen has tried to apologize for what she said but in the end doesn't take responsibility for it. If her apology was genuine — if she had owned up to what she said and admitted to being racist — could we accept her apology?

CE: She's obviously already been forgiven. That's what that groundswell of support behind her was.

EW: I don't think she's all of a sudden going to think she's equal to me or to Charles, and you can't forgive someone for thinking that they're better than you are.

CE: But when you start messing with people's livelihoods, I think she'll start challenging her beliefs.

EW: I don't think so. The one time she claimed to use the N-word was when she was being mugged 30 years ago. I guarantee you when she's at home with Bubba, she says her situation is what it is because of N-words. She's not blaming herself.


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