Friday, June 28, 2013

Thoughts on the Paula Deen Fiasco

Today is Friday, June 28, 2013.

It's taken me a while to piece together the whole story about celebrity chef Paula Deen.  I'm not a Food Network viewer, so I didn't have a lot of the backstory that others were privy to. 

Paula Ann Hiers Deen was born in January 1947 in Albany, Georgia.  She was raised in the Baptist (Christian) faith.  Her parents died before she was 23 years old.  Her first marriage, early in life, ended in divorce.  In her 20s, she suffered panic attacks and agoraphobia, which is fear of large spaces and large crowds.  Cooking for her family was something she was able to do without leaving her house, and her kitchen became a "safe place" for her.  (I guess she must have had someone else do the shopping.)  She was taught traditional Southern cooking by her grandmother.

In 1965 she married her second husband, Jimmy Deen.  It seems that Paula's two sons Jamie and Bobby may have been fathered by their mother's first husband, because Jimmy Deen is not listed as their father.  It appears that Mr. Deen must have adopted them legally.  The Deen family lived in Savannah, Georgia.  When the marriage ended, Paula was left with only $200, and by this time, she was raising not only her two sons, but her younger brother, Earl "Bubba" Hiers.  (Bubba is a common nickname for a younger brother in the American South.)

Deen tried hanging wallpaper, working as a bank teller, and selling real estate and insurance, but none of these jobs worked out for her.  Going back to something she loved – cooking, and her "safe place" – her own kitchen, she started a catering service, making sandwiches and meals, which were delivered by her two sons.   Her home business, called The Bag Lady, grew too big for her kitchen.  The Best Western Motel in Savannah hired her to cook for their restaurant, which was named "The Lady."  Five years later, she opened her own restaurant, "The Lady and Sons," in Savannah, along with her sons, who still manage that restaurant.

With the success of her own restaurant came her first cookbook in 1998, called The Lady and Sons Savannah Country Cookbook.  Soon she appeared on QVC, a TV network devoted to shopping from home.  Her show, "Paula's Home Cooking" on The Food Network opened in 2002.   Another show called "Paula's Party" was added in 2006, and her sons began to make appearances on that show.  Her sons got their own show, called "Road Tested" on The Food Network. Now Bobby appears in "Not My Mother's Meals" and Jaimie's show is "Home for Dinner with Jaimie Deen."  Besides "Paula's Home Cooking," Deen has been appearing until recently on one other show, called "Paula's Best Dishes," which debuted in 2008. 

Deen married her current husband, Michael Grover in 2004.  She has opened several other restaurants in the South, all featuring Suthern style cooking, and has co-authored a couple of other cookbooks, as well.  She appeared on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" in 2002, twice in 2007, and once in 2010.  As with many others, Deen saw her popularity rise exponentially when she was featured on Winfrey's TV talk show.  Dean made deals with Wallmart to sell a line of desserts, and with Target and Home Depot, among others, to sell a line of cookware.  She has also enjoyed until recently a number of sponsorships, such as one by Smithfield Foods, a pork producer that services Deen's restaurants.

In January 2012, Deen announced that she had type 2 diabetes, a fact she had apparently hidden from her audience for some time.  Since the style of cooking that she is famous for is a contributor to this type of disease, Deen was widely criticized, and she was forced to lighten up her recipes, which originally featured the generous use of butter.  Her favorite method of cooking – frying – meant that her dishes were high in fat.  They were also loaded with sugar and salt.  She even wrote a recipe for fried butter balls!  Deen became a spokesperson for a well-known brand of medication for type-2 diabetes, but many people wondered why she didn't just start eating healthier meals.  She did apparently do this, and lost some weight.

This spring, a case was brought against Deen and her brother, "Bubba" Hiers, by a former general manager of Uncle Bubba's Oyster House, co-owned by Deen and Hiers.  Lisa Jackson, who is white, alleges several instances of sexual harassment by Hiers and racial workplace discrimination.  Specifically, she alleges that Hiers kept pornography on the premises of the restaurant and that he made sexual advances to her, while Deen used racial epithets such as the word "nigger" in Jackson's presence.  In a recent deposition that was leaked by a tabloid newspaper, Deen admitted that she had used racial slurs before, but declared that she was not a racist.

It appears that the use of the "N-word" is not the only problem.  Deen was in on the planning of her brother Bubba's wedding, which had a "Southern plantation" theme.  It is unclear why Deen felt that it was important for Bubba to experience this sort of themed event, but while planning the event, it became apparent that Deen wanted all the waitstaff to be black, because the era of Southern plantations was pre-Civil War.  (The American Civil War was fought from 1861-1865.)  At that time, blacks in Southern states were legally kept as slaves to run the big plantations, which produced cotton and all the food for the family and their slaves.  In addition to working in the fields, slaves were used to do all the housework, laundry, and serving and cooking of meals.  In other words, the waiters for this themed wedding, held in 2007, were to represent black slaves on a Southern plantation.   Apparently, Deen told Lisa Jackson that she wanted some "little niggers" (presumably children) to come out and dance for the guests, but she knew that the press would be all over her for it.  So she knew it was wrong, or, at least, she knew someone else would think it was wrong.  Still, she asked blacks to be waitstaff at the wedding, to look like slaves. There are two kinds of people in the United States: people who think this is OK, and people who think this is not OK. 

When Deen was born, in 1947, slavery had been outlawed for nearly a hundred years, but a system of racial segregation was firmly in place in the South.  No doubt Deen grew up seeing blacks only in positions as service employees, and she undoubtedly heard the "N-word" spoken many times.  She probably didn't go to school with any black children.  Many blacks were still routinely denied the right to vote or own property.Schools were strictly segregated.

It wasn't until the mid-1960s that the nation grappled with the issue of  "civil rights," the upshot of which were voting laws that explicitly outlawed denial of voting rights based on race, as well as laws that gave black children the right to attend schools previously reserved for white children.  A number of people lost their lives in police actions that turned ugly during demonstrations, marches, sit-ins, boycotts and other mass events.

It has been said that there is a fundamental difference between the way Southerners and Northerners think.  I was raised in the north, where slavery has never been legal.  Although I am not that much younger than Paula Deen, I do remember hearing that blacks in the South were not really free to shop, go to school, attend church, or seek entertainment wherever they pleased.  They lived in segregated neighborhoods.  If I had been raised in a big city, I might have become aware that, even in the North, although blacks were technically free to go anywhere, there were still private clubs where they were not allowed, and there were places black people shunned, knowing that they were not truly welcome there.

Very few black people were famous, and only relatively recently has it become public knowledge how difficult life was for these people.  Jackie Robinson, the famous baseball player who broke color barriers in his sport, famously had a stipulation in his contract that he would not publicly complain about racial harassment.  Lena Horne, the popular singer, who shunned movie roles that stereotyped black women, and who was in turn shunned by the community of black actors, was blacklisted during the "McCarthy era" for her part in the civil rights movement and her so-called "leftist" views.

While Deen rarely saw blacks except in servant or service roles in her youth, I saw almost no blacks at all when I was young, since I was raised in small towns and rural areas.  I remember being told that it was inappropriate to call a black person a "nigger," and that the appropriate word was Negro.  It wasn't until the 70s that it became appropriate to use the terms "black" or "African American" for a black person.  Soon, the term Negro seemed somehow tainted.  Meanwhile, in the South, people were still using the term "nigger," although they seemed to pronounce it "nigrah" as if they were saying the more accepted term "Negro".  The white community in the South apparently thought that was still OK, well into the 1960s and beyond.  I have a feeling that Southern whites tended to "pretend" not to be racist in public, while maintaining their usual mindset and practices privately.

When I was interviewing for a teaching job with DeKalb County Schools in suburban Atlanta, I was told that there was no bus service in the suburbs, and the person who told me this was not shy about saying that this practice kept "those people" out of the suburbs.  I clarified, "You mean, blacks?"  She agreed.  I wondered whether she realized that she was keeping me out, too, since I did not have a driver's license in those days.  Needless to say, I did not accept a job in the DeKalb schools, nor did I accept the offer that was made in Athens, Georgia.  There was just too much racial stuff going on, even in the 1990s, and I'm glad I didn't get into the middle of it.

Deen says she's not a racist, and I truly believe she means what she says. Unfortunately, she seems unaware that racism in her millieu is so ingrained that whites do, think and say racist things without even realizing it.  There has to be a process of waking up and becoming totally conscious of racism due to ingrained and institutionalized white privilege.  This will not be a pretty realization for most whites.   Even Northerners are guilty of racism in some instances, even if they think otherwise.

As a result of the lawsuit and the charges of racism, Deen has not only been dropped like a hot potato from The Food Network, but she has also been dropped by Walmart, Caesars Entertainment, Smithfield Foods, Target, Home Depot, and diabetes drug maker Novo Nordisk.  Random House, which is due to publish Deen's latest cookbook, is monitoring the situation, and it wouldn't surprise anyone if they decided not to publish.  The only ones who have stood by Deen are the people who operate Paula Deen Cruises, which are done on Royal Caribbean ships.  Royal Caribbean has no formal association with Deen, and the cruises are booked through a specific travel agent called Alice Travel.  The two cruises planned for 2014 are booked with many of Deen's most loyal followers, and representatives of Alice Travel say that a whole new crop of people have been calling to make reservations since the legal snafu became public.

Deen's most loyal fans are calling on The Food Network to bring her back, and that may happen in the fullness of time, when people have begun to forget about her legal woes.  Some will want to excuse her racist behavior because she is "such a nice lady."  It would be a good thing if Deen truly acknowledged that she has behaved in a racist way, unconsciously.  I suspect, though, that she will continue to defend herself and see nothing wrong with the idea of a Southern plantation-themed wedding.  A lot of people who think the same way are in her corner. 

Recently Deen has begun to cry on national TV.  I was reminded. when I read about this, that people deal with problems in whatever way worked for them the last time they had a problem. Apparently, Deen has solved problems before by crying, but I suspect that it won't work very well this time around.  :-/

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