So, for those of you not paying attention to the implosion of Southern cooking doyenne Paula Deen’s empire, here’s a timeline of the week an angry public drove Old Dixie down. (Don’t you love a good Confederacy carol?):
In 2012, Lisa Jackson, a white woman, files suit against Deen, her brother Earl “Bubba” Hiers and their various enterprises. The former employee of Uncle Bubba’s Seafood and Oyster House, part of the Deen family of businesses and operated by Hiers, alleges routine assault and gender and racial discrimination within the workplace. According to Talking Points Memo:
The complaint alleged “racially discriminatory attitudes pervade” Uncle Bubba’s Oyster House where Jackson claimed African-American employees were required to use separate bathrooms and entrances from white staffers. Jackson also said African-Americans were held to “different, more stringent, standards” than whites at the restaurant and that Hiers regularly made offensive racial remarks.
Jackson also says that Hiers exposed employees to pornography and that women were routinely denigrated. Deen herself, when giving Jackson a promotion, is alleged to have been loathe to “give a woman a man’s job.”
In May 2013, as part of proceedings, Paula Deen was deposed. The National Enquirer broke the story that the recently filed videotaped deposition included damning content. The deposition was made public last week. Revelations included:
When asked if she had ever used the word “nigger,” Deen replied, “Yes, of course.” She admitted to using the word in reaction to an armed robbery by a black man in the 1980s and probably more recently when recounting conversations between black people or when telling jokes.
Deen thinks that racial slurs in the workplace are okay if part of one’s “sense of humor.” She proclaimed that “Most — most jokes are about Jewish people, rednecks, black folks. Most jokes target — I don’t know. I didn’t make up the jokes, I don’t know. They usually target, though, a group. Gays or straights, black, redneck, you know, I just don’t know — I just don’t know what to say. I can’t, myself, determine what offends another person.”
She also opined on the elegance of a traditional “before the Civil War” Southern wedding with only middle-aged black men and women as servers. Deen hoped to stage a similar wedding for her brother, but didn’t because, she said, the media wouldn’t understand.
In response to public backlash, Deen scheduled and then canceled an interview with Matt Lauer on The Today Show. Instead, she issues two, po-faced, half-assed apologies that demonstrate little understanding of what she did wrong.
The Food Network sticks a fork in Deen’s show, allowing her contract to expire at the end of the month. I am no network honcho, but I do know it is imprudent to have someone who has been publicly revealed as a racist and sexist, and who abets similar behaviors in the workplace, as a very high-profile face of your brand.
Paula Deen apologists descend on Facebook with cyber-torches, believing the celebrity chef is being demonized for “saying a bad word,” “being honest” and something, something, hip hop, something, something, Obama. They also line up to eat in her Georgia restaurants.
Meanwhile, African American employees of Deen’s businesses are coming forward with more allegations of mistreatment, so maybe this isn’t all about “bad words,” but, y’know, fucking workplace discrimination — what happens when people who think there are good uses of “the N word,” that women can’t be in positions of authority, and that the South was best in its antebellum days, have money and power.
And while all this was going on, Black Twitter (and friends) made my heart sing by marshaling its collective wit and sense of justice into putting Paula Deen on blast, most notably with #PaulasBestDishes, launched by the incomparable @BrokeyMcPoverty. (Joseph shared his favorites with y’all last week.)
Lettuce from a Birmingham Jail #PaulasBestDishes
— jay smooth (@jsmooth995) June 19, 2013
— Black Canseco (@BlackCanseco) June 19, 2013
— Daniel José Older (@djolder) June 19, 2013
— Mica (@Mica4Seattle) June 19, 2013
— Najeema (@OriginalNajeema) June 20, 2013
Najeemah, girl, you ain’t never lied!
Interestingly, at least one media outlet, Variety, called the hashtag “a showcase for racist jokes,” as if folks were fighting racism with, well, more racism. Now, I’ve written a lot about racism and sexism in comedy and about how criticism of comedy is often met with cries of “free speech,” “no topic is off limits,” “political correctness,” blah de blah. But…
The idea that the movement toward fewer “isms” in our speech and deeds is anathema; that “political correctness” is a blow against free speech; that the power structure has flipped; that the strictures of “political correctness” are everywhere, and that real bias barely exists anymore; has wormed its way into our social fabric, including entertainment. In comedy, that means that dusty racist, sexist, or homophobic tropes that are as old as time are positioned as refreshing and edgy.
#PaulasBestDishes wasn’t just typical cheerleading for the status quo masquerading as comedy. The hashtag unleashed comedy that was truly edgy in that it spoke truth to power. The target of the running gag was not the marginalized, but the marginalizer. The message wasn’t “Black people sure are funny,” but that racism and racists are awful. It was laughing at a serious subject done right. And it was funny as hell.