We use Paula Deen to give ourselves a pass

Story highlights

  • Gene Seymour: I'm tired of people beating up on Deen and also of those excusing her
  • He says we fixate on her disastrous statements, apologies, attempts to right herself
  • He says we use her to feel superior, rather than face our unfinished business with racism
  • Seymour: We focus on celebrity gaffes, not incarceration rates, real forms of discrimination

Are you tired of Paula Deen? I am. I'm tired of reading about her. I'm tired of talking about her. I'm tired of hearing other people talk about her. I'm tired of people looking for excuses to talk about her. I'm as tired of people who revel in beating her up as I am of people making excuses for her. To be brutally honest, I was tired of her even before she was called out in public for conduct and language detrimental to African-Americans.

Yet, like spectators at an over-extended Mixed Martial Arts bout, we seem perversely fixated on Deen's crashing, bruising struggle to stay upright while finding new ways to fall down. Last week, Wal-Mart, Home Depot and Target joined the Food Network and Novo Nordisk (the pharmaceutical company that makes the diabetes medication advertised by the "Queen of Southern Cuisine") in cutting their ties with Deen.

And, in what some believe to be the most grievous blow of all, Ballantine Books, the Random House subsidiary publishing her latest cookbook, "Paula Deen's New Testament," announced Friday that it was dropping that title from its fall release catalog.

The TV and marketing deals were one thing. But the cookbooks? They made up the foundation upon which Deen's empire was built. Judy Smith, the media consultant who inspired the creation of "Scandal's" Olivia Pope and has been hired by Deen to orchestrate her recovery, has her work cut out for her -- especially if, as seems likely, we're going to be forced against our collective will to witness what promises to be an excruciating restoration process.

Gene Seymour

Especially if that process is going to be anything resembling that much-hyped "apology" on NBC's "The Today Show" last week, which culminated with the single most disingenuous use of the verb "is" since Bill Clinton's more than a decade ago. Having squirmed my way through that 20-minute segment at least once, I found Deen to be far less contrite than others expected or inferred. Her cast-the-first-stone plea to the audience; her version of the "black-people-say-that-word-too" complaint about using the "N-word," her insistence that she wouldn't have fired herself for what she'd said "a world ago...with a gun to my head."

Watch: The N-word's history: Where did it come from?

Some of the comments resonated with regret -- tearful and at times poignant. But it sounded more like regret that she's being put through all this humiliation in the first place. This seemed to be a conversation not with Matt Lauer so much as with the people who were devoted to her in the first place. And indeed, with ongoing litigation by a former employee of Deen's restaurant figuring into the disclosure, no one tuning in that morning should have expected her to admit any wrongdoing on camera.

But why didn't he ask Deen about her apparent delight with the notion of preparing a wedding party with a plantation motif complete with an all-black staff of servers? An interviewer might at least have had the right to ask whether she understands that antebellum days mean different things to the collective memory of African-Americans than they do to more sentimental white Southerners.

Indeed, asking Deen point-blank, "Are you a racist?" was in so many ways the wrong question to ask. (Lauer might have been better off asking a locked basement door to open up.) If she'd been asked, instead, "What do you think racism is?" it might have bewildered, even antagonized her more. But it's a question that needed to be posed at some point -- and not just to Paula Deen.

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For, as is frequently the case when a celebrity is caught making a bigoted or similarly inappropriate remark, the incident gets drummed up as one of those so-called "teachable moments" for an America still wrestling with the specter of race, even after it has elected (twice) its first black president.

What often happens instead is another dreary star-bashing ritual, an occasion for pillorying public figures caught in an embarrassing act with censure that makes the rest of us feel superior to the offending party. In a media culture ruled by tabloid thinking (if not necessarily by tabloids themselves), it's an exercise in moralizing as opposed to genuine moral examination.

Wouldn't it be nice if, for this one time, this kind of story really did cause the rest of us to re-examine and reflect upon our unfinished business regarding race and culture? And to ask ourselves what constitutes racism in our 21st century society? It is true that we no longer have racially separate drinking fountains, rest rooms and train compartments. But it is also true that a disproportionate number of young black people receive far harsher jail sentences (e.g. life with no possibility of parole) than their white counterparts convicted of similar crimes. Is that justice? Or is it a form of racism?

Consider "Central Park Five," the recent documentary by Ken and Sarah Burns, about the rush to judgment by police, prosecutors and the New York media against five minority youths convicted of the 1989 rape and assault of a white female jogger. When the verdicts were vacated in 2002 after someone already in prison confessed to the crime, it didn't get nearly the attention as, say, the verbal racial pratfalls of Don Imus, Michael Richards or even Paula Deen. The documentary's theatrical release last fall offered some opportunity for widespread soul searching about racial presumptions. But not much; not, anyway, as much as there should be.

It seems, in short, that America is now more inclined to view racism as a lapse in manners instead of a persistent, recurring presence in its soul, one of many unpleasant facts of life that we'd rather not confront directly, unless it allows us to indulge in schadenfreude (defined as pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others-- say, celebrities who misspeak).

No matter how the Paula Deen mess shakes itself out, it will likely be just another squalid real-life melodrama that keeps the rest of us from acknowledging one simple truth: Racism won't even begin to erode until people give themselves the time and space to consider who each of is as opposed to what each of us is.

Which, granted, is not as catchy as "I is what I is." Too bad.

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