Skip to main content

We use Paula Deen to give ourselves a pass

By Gene Seymour, Special to CNN
July 2, 2013 -- Updated 1117 GMT (1917 HKT)
In the wake of the recent deposition in which Paula Deen admitted to using racially charged language, many sponsors and partners have re-evaluated their relationship with the embattled chef. Deen's 15th cookbook, "Paula Deen's New Testament: 250 Favorite Recipes, All Lightened Up," was set to release in October 2013. The book shot to the top of Amazon's pre-order list, but has now been <a href='http://eatocracy.cnn.com/2013/06/28/paula-deens-upcoming-cookbook-cancelled/'>canceled by Ballantine Books</a>. In the wake of the recent deposition in which Paula Deen admitted to using racially charged language, many sponsors and partners have re-evaluated their relationship with the embattled chef. Deen's 15th cookbook, "Paula Deen's New Testament: 250 Favorite Recipes, All Lightened Up," was set to release in October 2013. The book shot to the top of Amazon's pre-order list, but has now been canceled by Ballantine Books.
HIDE CAPTION
Paula Deen's empire
Paula Deen's empire
Paula Deen's empire
Paula Deen's empire
Paula Deen's empire
Paula Deen's empire
Paula Deen's empire
Paula Deen's empire
Paula Deen's empire
Paula Deen's empire
Paula Deen's empire
Paula Deen's empire
Paula Deen's empire
Paula Deen's empire
Paula Deen's empire
Paula Deen's empire
Paula Deen's empire
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
>
>>
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

Editor's note: Gene Seymour is a film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post.

(CNN) -- 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.

Gene Seymour
Gene Seymour

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.

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.

Author: Use 3rd-grade logic with N-word
Paula Deen takes on her critics
Is Alec Baldwin getting a pass for rant?

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.

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.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gene Seymour.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1516 GMT (2316 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1340 GMT (2140 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 2305 GMT (0705 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT