Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Paula Deen, What have you done?

Paula Deen on Facebook

In all my years of writing, I have seldom had an urge to get on the celebrity gossip bandwagon. At times I have done a certain amount on race and diversity issues though, so resolved to weigh in on this one. My what a can of worms.

I don't know Paula Dean, never met her, never even went to a restaurant, or show where I might have seen her in person. Don't know anybody who claims to know her. I have seen her show on TV though, but I was probably the last person in the country to see the show and/or have a clue who she was, being as I don't watch a whole lot of TV. The way the gossip mill is running though, you'd think everybody in the country knew her on a first name basis.

I eventually got around to seeing her show. Paula Deen is a cook, a chef to be more exact, that would be a cook who is a really good cook. She is also Southern. She took the best of the best of ordinary every day Southern cooking, bumped it up a notch, declared herself the "Queen of Southern Cooking" and built a multimillion dollar empire around it, TV shows, restaurants, cookbooks, and the list goes on. 

She is an entertainer extraordinaire and Southern to the core, and that is how she pitches herself, her food, her shows, and her merchandise. She sure got herself in a heap of trouble though when one of her former employees filed a complaint of harassment and discrimination against her business. In all fairness, if you sit down and read it, most of the complaining is about Paula's brother Bubba Heirs, who Paula evidently hired to run one of her restaurants. I am not certain exactly what was going on there, but it doesn't sound good. It also sounded like perhaps Paula didn't do a whole lot of listening over the years when folks said something was wrong. She also apparently didn't do a lot of listening when they said it was very wrong, I don't know, I wasn't there.

That said, for all the years I have worked various in media and publishing, I tend to not put a whole lot of stock in the gossip that goes around in the media, most especially celebrity gossip. This case is getting a whole lot of attention, but best I can tell, most of the folks writing, posting, ranting and raving on both sides of this one, don't personally know any of the people involved. I guess that is why we have courts of law though and this one is definitely in the court of law process.

A lot of us enjoy TV. If you are a TV watching kind of person, you tend to turn on the TV day after day and watch the same favorite shows. After a while, you start to feel a familiarity with the people on those shows. You feel like you know them. We all do. The thing is, we don't. They are just shows, entertainment, an act, even the cooking shows are all just an act, so are the news shows for that matter. In our minds though, we know who we like and who we don't like. Who we consider like us, and those who are not. The truth is though, we mostly don't know those folks at all, and more than one of them has had trouble when somehow or other it came out in public that they weren't honestly who folks thought they were. Is that their fault or ours? It really is all just a show.

Could be I'm rambling. Anyway, when it comes to the media, just about any kind of media, there is a lot of money in gossip, and they are sure getting their money's worth on Mrs. Paula. And it doesn't sound good. In fact, some of it sounds just about as bad as it can get. On this one though, her guilt or innocence is for the court to decide.

Tough questions. Does she have a history of racism and unseemly behavior, poor manners as it were when it comes to sensitivity toward people of various races. Looks like she busted that one wide open. It didn't seem to faze her one little bit when asked the related questions in the deposition. Of course, she's racist, in so many words, she didn't really deny that, actually when she thought about what she had said, she did a little backtracking. Then she did come out with a very public apology. Personally, I am not certain whether she is sorry for what she did, or sorry that she got caught and/or got called out doing what she did and there is definitely a difference in the two. From some of the comments she made, it really does beg the question. However, at the end of the day, whether she was sorry because she realized she was wrong for doing what she did or because she really slipped in getting called out on doing what she did, I don't have a clue, but she did have the sense to realize that perhaps an apology was in order. And she did issue a very public and heartfelt apology. What else can a person in that situation do? 
The N-word
Through it all, there has been a lot of discussion about the N-word. Uttering that word can destroy careers and ruin lives, and it has before. Could be it will again. However, the word has not been eliminated from common use in this country. In fact, it is used quite frequently in entertainment, on the street, and among friends. There is a difference though, that use is by those of the race to whom the word most frequently refers. 
We got that. But despite the effort, it has not been eliminated from our vocabulary at all. Which goes back to the question, if this word is so reprehensible as to destroy lives, and what an individual has worked decades to achieve, if merely uttering that word is to that level of wrong, then the rules need to be enforced equally. Obviously, it is a social code with us, not a point of law, but when breaking that code has that level of repercussion, there needs to be some level of equality in its enforcement. Make no mistake, we as a society are enforcing it, but we are not enforcing it with any level of equality at all. I don't guess saying something isn't equal is anything new, despite the quest of past generations for equal rights, we're not there yet. As soon as we make a little progress, we take a few steps back on something else. Could be this is one of those steps back.
So we got it about the N-word. That is apparently a really big issue in this case. It is either okay to use the word, or it isn't. If it isn't, it needs to be removed entirely from public usage, none of this -- we can use it, and they can't thing. It does not matter the reason, it is either okay to use it or it isn't. If it is truly not okay to use this word, to be completely fair to Mrs. Paula, every person who uses it and appears on TV, movies, music, etc., every single one of them needs to be removed from their media and entertainment positions as well. They also need to be removed from their positions in as loud and a shaming media circus as can be mustered. We can do it folks, Black and White, shame them all.
The Jokes
The other thing that is getting a lot of coverage is the racist jokes. Best I can tell, Mrs. Paula does not discriminate on that, she is apt to tell or at least listen to a racist joke on just about anybody for just about any reason, including redneck jokes, of which she is obviously one, redneck that is. It is not like I am calling her out on it, I have claimed that one a time or two myself, much to my own Mama's consternation. Face it, if you grew up in the Southern hills, and you were shooting a gun before you were big enough to hold the thing up, who teaches a three year old to shoot a gun…, don't answer that, and the first shot of liquor to touch your lips was moonshine, you might be a redneck. I don't care how it all plays out, I don't like one bit that us Southern folks, likely of a little bit of redneck heritage all are lumped together with racism and such when such as this comes out. We are not all actually like that. 
As has been pointed out though, she is a woman of a certain age, born in another time, when things really were different in the South. I was also born in the Jim Crow South, grew up during the Civil Rights Movement. I have awful memories of those times, and I'm White. I can look back now and I know there were a lot of things wrong. Hopefully with time we all learn and we do make changes as we grow to understand each other. Change had to happen. There is no doubt about that.
Mrs. Paula is a little older than me, but not by much. I've heard those jokes. That's the South for you though, I can just about guarantee, you can go from one end of the South to the other, the whole country for that matter, and just about every person you meet at least knows one person who tells those kinds of jokes. Mind you, all those jokes are not Black jokes, some of them are Jewish jokes, and gay jokes, and blond jokes, redneck jokes, Republican jokes, I'd never tell a Republican joke, but don't ask me to swear that under oath. And I do find those Democrat jokes highly offensive. But I can definitely handle them. Get the idea?
Taking my heritage for example, there are an awful lot of redneck jokes around these parts. I have definitely loved and shared a redneck joke or two, as if those were my own special domain. I can tell them, I'm red as they say. But as a gay friend said many years ago, us gays can tell gay jokes, but we don't take it so kindly when those same jokes are told about us. Ditto on the redneck jokes. The redneck jokes are mine, but if you want to know the truth, I don't take too kindly to them when they are coming from the mouth of an uptown New York City city slicker. Could be Mrs. Paula really did cross a line with what jokes were suitable for being told where. 
Red or no, most well bred Southerners know better than the N-word, and they know better than race jokes, too. Despite the image of the racist South and Southerners, neither are looked on highly in polite company -- not in these parts anyway. 
On a very deep level, by deriding one or the other of us, in our minds, our ways are somehow okay, like the "other" somehow doesn't deserve the same as the rest of us expect. Does the one we laugh at in disdain deserve better than a low paying job, or the luxury of not working, living off the taxpayers, three hots and a cot, as if they ask for and aspire to a life behind bars. How deep do those attitudes really go?
The TV Thing
Back to the TV thing, with that and other media, we see these folks every day, and we have an image in our mind of what we think they are. That image has to do with their act and the way they present themselves in public, i.e., on the TV screen. If you look at their actual job title, it is "personality," they are entertainers, paid for that pizzazz that lights up when they get in front of a camera, it's a show, that's it. Most of us have jobs, we do what we can to get by. 
A "Personality"
Paula Deen got where she is today because she's a super duper good cook, a world class chef, but she is also a "personality, an entertainer." There is no doubt, she does a good job on that and she sent the world reeling when it became very obvious that Mrs. Paula wasn't exactly the person we all thought she was, and certainly not the way she presented herself. Still, she makes all kinds of yummy foods that are admittedly not that great for you. But people everywhere love her food and she puts on a good show teaching us how to cook it. She also has restaurants where you can go pull up a chair and enjoy that down-home Southern soul cooking. That is what she does. That is what she is famous for. 
Paula Deen is a chef. She doesn’t pretend to be a paragon of anything except good cooking, high calorie, fat laden stick to your rib yummies that you are just about guaranteed to love eating and hate stepping on the scale the next morning.   

Life and Social Media
I don't know much else about her. I skimmed through her Facebook postings to see what she was about. She is most definitely an astute business woman; there is no doubt about that. In addition to her food business, she does a whole lot of giving back to the community. That is one of my core values, I believe deep down that we should all do some little something, as we are able, to give back, everything is not necessarily a grand show, but I do believe we should all do what we can to do our part and make the world a better place. Best I can tell, not that she is a great philanthropist or any such as that, just that she does her part and what she is supposed to do to be a good citizen and member of her community. I think that is a strong Southern value. We believe in community and doing our part in it. Best I can tell, she does what she is supposed to do as a member of her community.
Scanning further, you can learn a lot from a person's Facebook pages. I lived a while in Macon, Georgia. It has been a while, but when we first moved there, the thing that really hit me about the area, we hadn't been there long, and thought we'd go out for a quick meal. Didn't have a clue where we were going, but we found a little strip of restaurants and pulled up to one and noticed that every single person inside was Black. We sat in the car scratching our heads a minute, mind you, that was thirty some years ago, with a little bit of thinking, being as we were new in town, we drove on down the road. What we realized is that every single restaurant, all the patrons were either Black or White. We didn't even see one that was integrated. That was a very vivid memory of the area, just a couple hours away from Savannah, where Mrs. Paula lives. 
Anyway, we decided maybe we had better go in one of the ones for Whites. After my own personal experiences living in Georgia, I actually noticed that her businesses were integrated. There were Black and White customers and Black and White employees both, which even though it was many years back, was not my Georgia experience. I'd heard said on other that some of the employees had been with her for decades. Could mean that all is as it should be, it could also mean the economy is not worth a rip and that is the best around and nobody is making waves. I don't honestly have a clue. All I can see is that by Southern standards, she has a diverse staff and a diverse clientele. Could be those were just the pictures that got posted. I don't really know. I could also see as how if there aren't many jobs around folks might stay on no matter how they were treated, I could also see as how if she had a certain reputation, she would not be getting that diverse of a clientele, I don't honestly think all those diverse folks would keep coming back if she had that bad a reputation, and behaved that poorly, and as far as I know, that is where she and her family are from. Leaves a lot of questions I don't have a clue on.
The Gossip Mill
I don't know where I am going, trying to be balanced maybe. We are all human. Paula Deen is not a perfect human. I'm not either, actually. The thing is, if people spend much time around me at all, they probably have a pretty good idea how I feel about at least some number of things, what kind of person I am, and what I am about. However, no matter how much we want it to be otherwise, most everything on TV is a show, it's entertainment, play acting, and as backwards as it sounds to most of us, they also make a lot of money when they keep the gossip mill running.
She makes her living putting on a show cooking good food. Her job is being an on camera personality who knows good food. Just because you watch her show, and she sounds so down-home going on and on about her family, none of that means that you really know her. Does that make her any more or less a person? Not in my book. She's made some mistakes. But if nothing else, she has reaped what she sowed, karma has bit her on the backside, whether she gives a rip or not, she is now very aware of what people think of that kind of behavior. Does that mean she will change her ways? I don’t even know that she was behaving that way in the first place. She mentioned things a long time ago and the gossip mill is after all the gossip mill. The person filing the suit is not a recent employee. She's been gone a while. 
On a certain level, we all have to come to certain understandings with our conscience though.
Is it my business if she changes her ways? Not really. Except that, in her visibility, her role as a public figure, she very much represents the South, she is indeed a daughter of the South. But I am too. The whole incident leaves me somewhat uncomfortable. We all know a Mrs. Paula. She is not a slough off. She has worked hard to get where she is and she has done well. She is without a doubt well loved. She is active in her community. But she has also exposed some ugly truths. One is that no matter how hard we try, we are all human. Also, no matter how hard we have tried, there are also some things that we as Southern people truly have not got past. 
Still, at the end of the day, do these mistakes merit her being fired? I'm not so sure about that. She's involved in a court case, we know that. The verdict is not even in and she has already lost her job and a major contract. Back to the N-word though, if she is going to lose her job for using it, so should everybody else who uses it, no matter what the color of their skin. Equality is about equal treatment and it goes both ways.
I've heard some of the older folks who have worked with race and diversity issues for years say we will never truly get past the problem until that generation, her generation passes on. I'm not far behind them though and that is not encouraging. If anything, maybe the good out of this is that it got folks talking. Black and White alike are supporting her. There is no doubt that Mrs. Paula is loved. There is no doubt that she has made some mistakes. Some doozies. There is also no doubt that she has given back to her community. Despite it all, there is no doubt she is loved by many, Black and White alike. There is also no doubt that for every one who is very vocally expressing their support for her, there is another who feels that justice has been served in the court of public opinion, and the law suit is just a loose end.    
This problem is all over this country though, it's not just the South. Like with the jokes, we all know somebody who can't seem to stop those race and ethnic jokes. Some of the stories in that statement though, it truly makes you wonder. The media is all about Mrs. Paula, but if you read the thing, the statements mostly aren't. Her brother isn't getting near the coverage she is, but when you throw him in there, it just keeps getting worse.
The part that bothered me the most wasn't actually the N-word thing or even the jokes, it was that the bathroom facilities in her business were separate and that the Black employees entered by the back door. The last of the Jim Crow Laws officially ended in 1965. I do know that. Separatist racist practices within the day to day operations of the business is indicative of a much deeper problem. Whether it is race, money, social class, or ethnic group, we are not treated equally in this country. But in this, there were no pretenses. And we are not talking thirty years ago on this one.
Lessons Learned
Back when I did a lot of writing on race issues, one of the major minority publishing companies in the country, which I won't mention their name, but one thing stuck in my mind after all those years. I had been the managing editor for a women's site, professional development, glass ceiling, overcoming discrimination and all that. Well, a major study came out from a major human resource firm on women who had taken time off from their careers when they had babies, and how that put them behind in their careers. Yes, somebody did a study on that. Silly me, I thought it would be a no brainer to do something on that, maybe interview some expert on what a woman can do to make up for lost time after she has been out of the workforce having babies, and finds herself behind for just that reason. The publisher was quite clear, he said, we cover discrimination and how to overcome problems as it relates to race (i.e., skin color), nothing else. The bottom line was that since this study on women being behind in the work place had nothing to do with the problems caused by race and White men, it was not covered, even though otherwise, it was definitely the focus of the publication. It was also along about that time that I learned that a more enterprising editor would have figured out a way to make the story about race and done it anyway. 
I wasn't happy with that lesson. It was however a lesson, that despite the noise, sometimes the folks that look like they are working toward change, aren't really working toward change at all. And at the end of the day, it is all about the noise. And in this business, like entertainment, noise equals money. Except there is always somebody who is taking the brunt of that noise. The thing that distressed me the most, and the other thing I learned in that gig was that in doing so, if the problem of race was ever really overcome in this country, they'd be out of business. There's a point in there somewhere.
Could be this bash Mrs. Paula business has got a little out of control. Every other day when you pull up the news, off to the side there is a piece on some celebrity who has had a wardrobe malfunction, wardrobe malfunctions get a lot of attention. Another one can't seem to stay out of jail, another one can't seem to keep up with which husband she is on now, another one or two go off the deep end and do odd things to their kids and/or hair. One is in and out of jail for beating his wife. Somebody gets drunk and gets stopped by the police, in Hollywood, that makes the national news.
What does this have to do with Paula Deen? Entertainment.... It's all about the money. The story is getting a whole lot of press, a lot of coverage. Some folks are definitely pulling their paychecks on this story. They are voting with their wallets too. Lost her TV contract and an endorsement contract with Smithfield. At the same time social media and Facebook is brimming with support. Hundreds of thousands, nearly half a million on one I saw, people have said they would boycott the companies who dropped her. That is pretty strong support.  
Paula Deen Support Page
People all over the country are taking sides. I'd be lying if I said I had never watched her show, and truth be known, if I am ever in Savannah again, I'd probably think about a visit to her restaurant. But at the end of the day, I don’t know her. I don't have a clue what honestly happened. I am not going to pick up a stone to throw her way. But I am not going to raise my voice in support either. I don't know what honestly happened, but it is pretty clear something did. The real ruckus has to do with how the people in this country get so caught up in celebrity culture, it is all about entertainment. She is an entertainer, a show cook. That's it. She doesn't make decisions that affect the well being of much of anybody in the modern world, except maybe her employees. From the looks of things, she let them down big time though. That little issue is already being decided in a court of law though. Best I can tell, that is actually the issue in this one. The rest is between her and her maker. 
Seems to me though, if this country got this fired up about issues that were really important, it would be a better world for us all. Not that this isn't an important case, it actually is. But why is what a celebrity does more important than the behavior of the rest of us? Even if she makes an off color joke. Who cares? Who among us hasn't heard an off color joke before? 
As if in some kind of massive moral compass, we indignantly demand the destruction of the life and career of a White Southern woman who decades ago dared to utter the N-word, while she still makes her Black employees use the back door and separate bathroom facilities.  
After all that thinking, all that writing, I got hold of a copy of the law suit. I read the complaint, it is troubling. I didn't cry, that is about all I can say. Then to be fair, I also found a copy of Mrs. Paula's deposition. I read her response. I guess I understand why this one is going to trial. Best I can tell, a lot of the response seems to be based on technicalities, not denying much of anything.
I am not going to pick up a stone and throw it. But there is not a thing in me that can say I support Mrs. Paula on this one either. Despite her tendency to if not engage in, to at least ignore poor and harassing behavior on the part of the people she puts into positions of power (even if it is her brother) over her employees, who depend on her, she is a solid member of her community. You cannot expect anything except that they will support her. From my experience with Southern courts, the more money you have, the better you are going to come out. I think Mrs. Paula is probably going to come out on top on this one. I don't honestly know if that is right or wrong. The truth is in there somewhere. I am not the judge and I am surely not on the jury. As much as I hate the celebrity gossip mill, it could be the only place that justice is served on this one is the court of public opinion.
Granted she made some mistakes, but do those mistakes honestly call for a level of retribution that destroys everything she ever worked for? At a certain point, you have to go back to what the good book says, let he who is without sin cast the first stone. We got problems in this country, big ones, although her actions may well speak to a deeper problem, at the end of the day, Paula Deen is not one of those problems. At least not one of the big ones. She is a cook, a chef, she writes cookbooks, and has a few restaurants. That is how she earns her living. She has done well. She most definitely earned her position. 
Could be her biggest wrong of all, it wasn't the N-word, and it wasn't those jokes, it was that when she reached her position, when her employees, the people who worked for her, who helped to keep her dream alive, and whose lives she really did have power over, when they came to her with very real problems, she did not listen. She is getting a whole lot of press, but if you read the paper work, most of it was for somebody else's wrong doing. Be that as it is, at the end of the day. She was the one in charge. It was her call. If she had done right by the people who depended on her, she would not be in court today.
Could be, if there is any good at all to come of this, it got people talking, maybe it is time for just a little more conversation about race. Progress has been made, but we're not there yet. 
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Copyright 2013 Regina Pickett Garson

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