We were sitting on the long, glossy-topped, mahogany table eating dessert. I was about 12. “He beat up that n—–r. Normally, I don’t condone fighting in my boys, but in this case, the kid deserved it.”
12 year old me didn’t know why he deserved it. No one ever said. There was just that word – twisted and ugly.
It’s Easter Sunday 2008, and I’m at a luncheon with a friend’s family. We are all getting ready to eat, and my friend’s mother says, “I don’t order from there. That place is owned by blacks, and we all know those people don’t keep their houses clean.”
I stared at her and waited for someone in the family to say something, anything in protest. I tried to find a way to challenge my friend’s mom, but I just gaped.
No one paused. No one said a thing. Conversation just continued on, as if normal.
And maybe it was.
Last week, when Paula Deen’s statements about her wish to hearken back to slave days where all the servants were black people “so cute” in their white ties, when she mentioned that she used the word nigger when referring to people but that she wasn’t being “mean,” these memories and the many more examples of quiet racism that I’ve seen came washing back over me.
They are symptoms of a problem in our country, a cultural problem that still sees “white” people – or those we decide to call “white” – as the norm – and those of any other ethnicity or “race” as lesser.
This white supremacy, for that is what our culture is – a white supremacist society – comes out in subtle ways.
- the choice many of us make to identify someone’s race only when that person is a person of color – “There were six of us there – me, those 4 ladies who live on Main, and that little black lady from 2nd St.”
- the way we refer to celebrities who speak in what we call “standard American English” as “acting white” – think Tiger Woods and Clarence Thomas
- the way that “standard American English” takes into account the grammatical structures of the privileged but disparages those of people of color or the poor – “We be going,” “ain’t,” “I aksed you a question.”
So when someone with the prominence and respect that Paula Deen carries speaks this reality loud and clear, when she verbalizes directly the quiet racism that makes so many people – particularly in the South – claim that slavery “wasn’t that bad,” it feels like both a blow and an opportunity. Her words are a reminder of how far we still need to go, and they open up a chance for us to discuss the realities of race relations in our country.
We need not condemn Deen as a person – she has been held accountable for her words and beliefs, and I believe appropriately so* – but we should take a cold look at ourselves – and I definitely include myself in this scrutiny since I was raised in the U.S. as well – and see where we might need to confront our own beliefs about people of color.
Deen may very well be a product of her time and place, as some of her defenders might say, but that time and place isn’t just the 1950s and 1960s in the Deep South, where she was raised. That time is now, and that place is here. Until we address our continuing systems – organized and tacit – that perpetuate the beliefs and structures that say people of color are lesser than people we have deemed “white,” we cannot and will not live into the ideal of equality that Americans so proudly and rightfully pursue.
What do you think of Deen’s comments? What do you think of the public reaction to them?
*I do appreciate that Deen apologized – that was the right choice. But whether it’s because of editing, her own emotion, true lack of awareness, I found her apology to be lacking in that I’m not sure she fully understands not only what she said but also the horrible structures and attitudes present in the “ideal” she so blatantly touted. Perhaps this awareness will come with time. I hope so.