Beginner's Heart

Beginner's Heart

race in America, and the dilemma of forgiveness ~

black-white-handsI’ve never cared for Paula Deen. Didn’t watch her on TV more than once or twice. Didn’t buy her cookbooks. Don’t even care for her kind of cooking, these days. I also think that people need to NOT use the n-word. And that the ‘lost days of the Confederacy’ are unlamented.

So I was flabbergasted to realise I feel sorry for her. WHY, in the name of tweet? (I’m reverting to my grandmother’s idioms here; sign of my discomfort?)


If you haven’t read about her fall from grace, Google it. Suffice to say that she used the N-word many years ago (and possibly more recently), and evinced the legacy of the Confederate South we all wish were interred with Lincoln.

But here’s the deal: does Deen deserve to be ruined for this? And would we have been as quick if she was a man (I’m remembering the sexism explicit in Martha Stewart’s conviction for ill-doing)? The Supreme Court just said we’re not racist anymore (to justify its own refusal to acknowledge the very real issues of race in this country). So what to do about Paula Deen?

Does having her cooking empire crumble around her serve any purpose? WalMart, Smithfield, et al.; Random House isn’t even going to release her book, even though it has projected great sales!


What’s the deal? Just what does this dog-pile-on-the-chef-rabbit gain us? Will it make Paula Deen less racist? Does it make Walmart — home of longterm allegations of sexism and labour inequitites — somehow a ‘better’ company? What if Deen really IS sorry? racism ruins lives

I HATE racism. And I hate even more — if possible — the N-word. It was never said in our home when I was a child, and my own son didn’t know what it meant until he was at least 9. He’d never heard it. I count that as a small victory, considering we live in the city w/ the 5th worst race riot  in Amerian history.


The corporate reactions to Deen’s ignorance seems … well, a bit smug. But in truth? I figure ALL white people are racist until they prove otherwise. I also assume that even the best -intentioned of peoples — regardless of  race, religion, ethnicity, et al — harbour forms of ignorance. Myself included.

Certainly Paula Deen used the N-word. She said so (and give her credit, folks: she was under oath). Certainly there’s no excuse for that. But what happened to forgiveness? What happened to grace? What happened to conversation about the whole thing?

A couple of years ago, a student in my class said that when she was in high school a white female student came in blackface to a school costume party. A black male student came in white face. Those are the salient facts. The white student was suspended, and lost her pending scholarship to a prestigious university. The black student was valourised in the student yearbook.


blackfaceWho among us thinks the way the school handled this situation was well-considered? What a lost opportunity to open a conversation among the students, the faculty. Think of the ways in which students might have learned — from each other, from speakers brought in — about race, and the history of blackface and race in this country. I had students who had no idea that blackface was insulting, nor why.

What if this country had used the Paula Deen incident to talk about race, and the history of the N-word? Might we at least have had a flying hope that Paula Deen might ‘get it’? Because I sincerely doubt that ruining the woman financially has accomplished anything positive at all. Unless you count the smug feeling of self-congratulation a few corporations may be feeling…


Regardless, my beginner’s heart is deeply saddened by the whole thing. What Paula Deen did — and said — was wrong. And yet… When is the annihilation of someone’s livelihood — hard-won as hers has been — ever okay? I can’t help but think we accomplished nothing at all. Except to ruin Paula Deen…






  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Birdy

    I agree with you. I think that every one of us in this country–regardless of ethnicity or color of skin–harbors racism inside, whether it’s buried way deep in one’s unconsciousness or part of one’s everyday conscious life. In the end, is there any difference? Well, yes and no. Yes there’s a difference between knowingly persecuting and discriminating versus being unaware of small aspects of bigotry that lie deep in ourselves. But on the other hand, it may be more dangerous to be among the self-righteous ones who believe they are so free of bias but who go around leaving damages in their paths that they didn’t even notice themselves making, because those of us are more likely to project those unknown and hated things about ourselves onto others and to ruin their careers or run them out of our lives simply because they exhibit more forthrightly (more honestly, maybe?) our hated qualities. It doesn’t solve anything.

    I also agree that, had Paula Deen not been an older woman, very little would have been done or said. Consider the Congressman, Joe Wilson, who shouted out “You lie!” at the President of the United States during his State of the Union address– was he run out of his office? was he ruined by having done such a clearly racist act? Far from it. True, he issued an apology in a written statement (but refused to make a speech of an apology on the floor of Congress, for which he was voted a mark of disapproval by Congress, which did nothing to punish or harm his career); he went on to gain large donations for his party and for his upcoming election, which he won easily. He ran unopposed at the next election, even.

    I believe Paula Deen has been made a scapegoat for everything we harbor with guilt personally and collectively. I am appalled at her actions, but our culture treats serial killers with more respect than we have treated Deen. What’s more, the allegations and the lawsuit were brought against her by a white person. Maybe I’m not evolved enough yet to see how that is legally if not ethically even possible, but even aside from that aspect of it, I can’t help but wonder what that person’s ulterior motive really is.

    I believe we are far too mixed up as a nation about all these issues to get on the self-righteous high horse and knock Paula Deen down to the status of amoeba, when right there at our other hand is the tragic death of young Trayvon Martin, and the resulting trial of George Zimmerman going on right at the same time. Such a polarizing trial it is, clearly revealing bigotry on multiple sides (read the blogs, if you need a kick in the pants about the racism that is still so rampant in our country). To me, this is where we as a culture need to be focusing our attention and our discussions– a young man is dead in the midst of all that is being said and not being said. Yet it’s Paula Deen who has been kicked to the moon?

    • Britton Gildersleeve

      Birdy, I absolutely agree. The trial of Trayvon Martin is a travesty. It panders to the fears on both sides of the racial divide. All white people are not like George Zimmerman. All black youth in hoodies are not wannabe murderers. And you’re right: instead of offering the trial of Zimmerman as a tale of what’s wrong with American race conversation (or lack thereof), we pillory Paula Deen (bless her heart, as they say in the South…). How is that useful?

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