Paula Deen: American Scapegoat
C.W. Cannon, an English professor in New Orleans, writes a powerful column saying that America has made a scapegoat of Paula Deen because she’s a working-class white Southerner. Excerpts:
The response to comments by Paula Deen in a recently leaked civil suit deposition has been swift, virulent, and as hypocritical and counter-productive as the ham-fisted and cowardly discussion of race and class usually is in this country.
It shows very well the function of white Southerners, the more “down-home” the better, in the broader American drama of facing our racist past and present.
The hope implicit in the trashing of Deen and her ilk is that complacent middle-class suburbanites in their segregated neighborhoods can continue to ignore the deeply ingrained racism that shapes so much of our society. How so? By isolating it in a particular class of white Americans, namely white working-class Southerners, especially the ones who actually interact with working-class black Southerners on a daily basis.
Multi-generational white Southerners are not any more racist than racists in Colorado, New Jersey, or the new Florida of George Zimmerman. But they are arguably more comfortable than most other Americans when it comes to discussing their racial feelings.
As the great black novelist Ralph Ellison noted 50 years ago, “Southern whites cannot walk, talk, sing, conceive of laws or justice, think of sex, love, the family or freedom without responding to the presence of the Negroes.” Anyone familiar with white and black Southern literature, from William Faulkner to Alice Walker, is aware that white Southern racism is more complex, intimate, and emotional than its Northern cousin. The immediate blacklisting of white Southerners who have the courage to examine their own racial feelings in good faith advances no useful anti-racist purpose.
Let’s look at the specifics of what Deen confessed in the “smoking-gun” deposition. She, a 66-year-old white woman from Georgia, has admitted that she has used the n-word in the past, in a private setting. Anyone who claims to be shocked by this is either not from the United States or is being maliciously disingenuous.
Cannon writes that his parents were intimately involved in the Civil Rights movement, and because of that:
We were raised with strict rules against n-word usage, though if you were to ask either of my parents, or me, the same question asked of Paula Deen, our answer would be the same: “Yes, of course.” My white and Hispanic friends in the 9th ward neighborhood I lived in for years used the n-word all the time, as did their parents. Usually it went something like, “Be careful down by Piety Park (a block away), dey got those n—– boys hanging around there.”
I used the n-word with this group of peers; I also have uttered the word in rage (after experiencing, like Paula Deen, a gun in my face), in jest, in the company of white people, and in the company of black people, too. Indeed, I was once called the n-word myself by a black friend expressing approbation.
Litmus tests about who may have uttered the n-word, for any reason, ever, are a poor substitute for assessing people’s political and economic choices regarding race. In a political culture driven by symbolism alone, you can be David Duke as long as nobody finds a hood in your closet.
Powerful line, that last one. Read the whole thing. Cannon says that Paula Deen’s public destruction solves no problems in the real world, but rather allows the people who damn her to wash their hands of their own complicity with racism. You can believe and behave however you like, as long as you follow the speech code to the letter — and as long as you realize that white Southerners are always and everywhere an acceptable scapegoat. We can laugh at the Honey Boo Boo clan in their hapless dysfunction — and by the way, I’m fine with that, to a point — but we must not crack a smile or roll an eye at Rachel Jeantel, the Honey Boo Boo black analogue. See how this works?