Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Recipes for Racism

I don’t really watch television, but my grandmother was a big fan of Food Network, and she and my daughter were devoted watchers. I would sometimes go plunk down in my grandmother’s king-sized bed with the two of them and have a Food Network-fest. Chopped was probably their favorite, but Paula was definitely on the short list. (True fact: I actually have Paula Deen’s autobiography sitting on my bookshelf—one of the few personal possessions my grandmother left behind when she died.)

I confess that I’ve always liked Paula. She reminds me of a lot of older Southern women I know—women who always know how to make you feel comfortable, seemingly without effort. As a die-hard butter fan, I was never put off by her cooking, as so many of the Health Police seem to have been. I always figured that no one was forcing anyone to follow her recipes. Take what you like, ignore what you don’t, and move along.

And then came the revelations.

There has been a ton of ink spilled about the whole fracas, and the only reason I’m writing about it now is because I’ve been astonished to see people who are normally incredibly attuned to racism defending Ms. Deen. This has been so confusing and bothersome to me that I’ve dropped a much bigger set of blog posts that I’m working on (more on that later this week) to write about this.

Racism is an issue that should be confronted anywhere and everywhere—yet, somehow, it seems to have become a worse sin to call someone a racist than it is to be a racist. Here are the arguments I seem to keep running across—and they strike me as recipes for racism:

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We shouldn't fault Paula Deen for being racist because there are so many other, more important issues in the world.

Playing “Rank the Terrible Issues” serves only to ensure that all the bad “-isms” will continue—because the “-ism” that limits or destroys one person’s life is "no big deal" to another.

Plus, calling Paula Deen out for racist speech/behavior has absolutely nothing to do with any given individual’s involvement in “other, more important issues in the world.” If we can't call out individual acts of racism, how in the name of heaven can we call out systemic racism? (The quick answer is: We can’t.)

The fact that I’m blogging about Paula Deen’s dramatic fall from public grace, rather than the Supreme Court’s abominable decision in Shelby County v. Holder on the Voting Rights Act (VRA), doesn’t mean I don’t care about the VRA. That will be a boots-on-ground involvement for me, involving contacting elected officials, attending Moral Monday protests, etc.

But here’s the thing—it is the Paula Deens of the world who make that invalidated section of the VRA so important. It is the everyday, casual racism of people like her—and those who defend her—that is the bedrock on which legislatures across the nation will build voting roadblocks for people of color.

To sum it up: If you care about the VRA, you damned well better be calling Paula Deen—and any other person in your life, including yourself—out about racist speech and behaviors, because those are the manure in which systemic racism grows and thrives.

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We shouldn’t fault Paula Deen for being racist because she’s a product of her time and place.

I find this rationale for letting Paula Deen off the hook to be deeply, DEEPLY offensive. I can’t believe I’m going to quote Republican speechwriter Michael Gerson about the “soft bigotry of low expectations”—but it fits:

Please don’t give me a pass on racism because I’m a native, white Southerner.

There is simply NO EXCUSE for racism. Not geography. Not age. Not anything. There have been plenty of white people across time and space who refused to engage in racist acts or speech. It is currently impossible for white people in this nation to avoid benefiting from a racist social structure, but it is critical that we not excuse individual racism. Being/acting racist is a choice.

If you want eliminate your own racist behaviors, there is an entire Internet out there just waiting to educate you. [Warning: some of those links contain language that is NSFW.]

Doing so will, of course, require you to listen to people of color as they recount their experiences of racism.

It will also require you to learn to sit quietly with serious personal discomfort and to put down your instinct to be defensive. If you feel the urge to argue, don’t. The first step in dealing with your own internalized racism is to be humble and LISTEN.

If you are serious about it, uprooting your own racism will force you to de-center your experiences, thoughts, and opinions, and to give pride of place to the experiences, thoughts, and opinions of those who are constantly wounded by a system that routinely denies them the legitimacy of their own lives.

If you choose to engage in that hard, but rewarding, work, you will fail. Repeatedly. I know, because I’ve done it. It is humiliating and humbling to realize that your good intentions are not enough and you’ve messed up.

But the way you handle failure is not to turn yourself into a martyr and tell people to “please take up that stone and throw it as hard as [you] can and kill me”—like you’ve got Jesus on your side.

The way you handle failure is to say “I’m sorry.”

No excuses. No faux-pologies. No “I’m sorry if you were offended.” No ifs, ands, or buts.

Say “I’m sorry”—and then never do/say that thing again. Hard and easy—both at the same time.

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We shouldn't fault Paula Deen for being racist because she's innocent until proven guilty.

This one is nonsense. Paula Deen has convicted herself. The transcript of her deposition in the lawsuit against her and her brother is there for anyone to read. And anyone can watch the video of her interview with the New York Times.

My opinion was formed by her sworn legal testimony and by the words that came out of her own mouth. I don’t need a court of law to know that she has said racist things and done racist things.

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We shouldn't fault Paula Deen for being racist because we've all sinned and fallen short.

Using the “logic” of this argument, we can never call anyone on ANYTHING. Not sexism. Not racism. Not homophobia. Nothing.

That is not a world in which I want to live.

If I say or do something racist, I really hope someone calls me out. I hope they do it kindly—but they aren’t doing me any favors by excusing my behavior.

Not so long ago, it was almost unthinkable that a white person would say overtly racist things in public. Within their family or friend groups, sure—but not to the world at large.

But Barack Obama's election/re-election seems to have dealt a death-blow to the long-held convention that one shouldn't be OPENLY racist. In our supposedly “post-racial society,” the election of an African American president blew the lid off the festering racism in our country, and now the entire nation is covered in the poisonous spew. [Again, some links are probably NSFW.]

That is why, personally, I am glad to see anyone being held accountable for saying racist things that no one said in polite company just five years ago.

And here’s the thing—for better or worse—people who are on the public stage know (or ought to) that they are under scrutiny. I loathe and detest our “celebrity culture” because I don’t think that one gives up a right to privacy just because zie happens to be on television, in the movies, etc. But I’m not in charge of the culture, and anyone in the public eye ought to be smart enough to know that EVERYTHING zie does will be analyzed and criticized. That’s the price of fame in our culture.

Paula Deen worked really hard to get herself and her sons out of poverty—and I can, and do, admire that. But there are many people who worked just as hard and were not lucky enough to get the opportunities she was offered.

She seems to have forgotten that, from those to whom much has been given, much is expected.

She could have learned a lesson—those who use their celebrity well can make a powerful difference in the world. That she didn't speaks volumes about where we are as a culture.

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We shouldn't fault Paula Deen for being racist because we are supposed to forgive people.

This one is aimed specifically at Christians.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean that there are no consequences for our actions. I wish someone could explain to me why people equate “forgiveness” with “obligation to allow Ms. Deen to retain her position as a cultural icon and to keep filling her already overflowing coffers.” Because I just don’t get it.

First of all, the only people who truly have the right and power to forgive Paula Deen are the people she has directly injured with her words and actions. Those would be her employees, first and foremost, and then people of color in general.

We all make mistakes—but until she shows that she has the least clue about what she did wrong, recognizes the harm she’s done, and stops playing the martyr because people have called her on it, it seems to me that she isn’t really all that interested in being “forgiven.” It seems more like she’s rushing to get to that “forgotten” place—and there appear to be a lot of folks who are anxious to see her get there without any accountability.

I wonder if that's because most white people know they have uttered racist words in their past, and they feel guilty about it. Could they be excusing Paula Deen as a way of expiating their own behavior?

I don't know. But I do know this—in the past, I have said racist words and told racist jokes—and, yes, I feel guilty about that. But I don't think that gives me license to excuse Paula Deen—or anyone else (including myself) for racist behavior.

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We shouldn't fault Paula Deen for being racist because Alec Baldwin is an emotionally abusive homophobe (or because Other Men do bad things and don’t lose their reputations, endorsements, etc.)

This is just a variation on the first one—and it’s just as much a non sequitur. Ms. Deen and Mr. Baldwin should both be called out. They have both behaved badly. They have both hurt people with their words and actions. I believe that both of them should take themselves out of the spotlight and do some serious personal work to change their behaviors and work to repair the harm they have done.

And I would add several other names to that list. I’m sure you could too.

Some people seem to want to excuse Ms. Deen because they believe she’s being treated more harshly because she’s a woman. I agree that’s part of the calculus—but, at the same time, I always come back to the fact that we should be calling out anyone who makes racist/sexist/homophobic/xenophobic/etc. statements.

No passes. Period.

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Every one of these rationalizations is a recipe for racism. And not a single one of them holds up to scrutiny.

Let me be clear—I don’t want to see Paula Deen drawn and quartered. Sadly, I know that what she did takes place millions of times every day—she is not alone. And THAT is the problem.

What I want is for people to take this moment and this conversation seriously. I want people to understand that every one of us has an obligation to be aware of our words and actions and to change them when they hurt others.

I also want people to understand that racism is like cancer. Without vigorous treatment, it spreads. It causes incalculable suffering and it kills.

Let’s stop making excuses for it—whether it be for Paula Deen or ourselves. We can do better than this. We can craft our own recipe for a world that values ALL people equally.

And that recipe can—and should—involve honesty, humility, and a willingness to listen and change.

And butter. Lots and lots of butter.

Update: I wanted to add a comment that I got on my Facebook page from a friend and former colleague who is a 20-something Asian American man. He raises a number of issues that I, as a privileged white person, didn't even consider. I am grateful for his thoughtful addition to the conversation.



Apparently talking about Deen's racist actions "steals" attention from other issues, as if we live on a TV set with limited time and breadth? Apparently Deen's racism isn't symptomatic of the larger issue, including being related to "higher priority" issues of racism or racist culture like those things spouted by proud racists and issues like VRA? I've had people who argued that Deen's only sin was being accused of using a racial slur that can't be substantiated turn around and tell me I'm oversimplifying the issue by claiming that the real problems are the racist and sexist behaviors she and her brother have ACTUALLY admitted to in their depositions.

It is INSANE that people would invoke punishing people like Palin, Perry, or Gingrich ("true racists") in the same breath as claiming that Deen deserves leniency. If we really care about racism being called out (as well as other -isms) then it means that Deen deserves what she's getting and that these other people need to feel the same, not that we need to lay off of Deen.

But one other argument that annoys me to NO end is the claim that this is just a way for liberals to feel good about themselves and their race issues (see: every liberal Deen defender, Bill Maher, and probably every conservative looking to tear down a liberal who is against Deen's actions as reference). First, this assumes that all liberals are white people who have no personal stake in the racial climate of our society that they can afford to tackle issues like this "to make them feel good". People of color confront these issues because they are part of the reality of their lives and they're tired of it going ignored. When they bring it up and debate it, they're not doing it altruistically. Are we really going to suggest that people of color are only raising hell about this because they want to score anti-racism brownie points from one another? The "feel good" argument is entirely white-centric. It's racist and the irony is palpable.

The second issue is that it assumes that white people have no personal stake in fixing a racist society. White people do not live in a vacuum. They benefit from a racist society, but that doesn't mean that every white person is fine with it that way. White people have family and friends who are people of color. They also have a fundamental sense of morality and ethics. To make this "feel good" argument suggests that the fundamental issue of inequity being inherently "wrong" in this society is non-existent to white people, and that idea applies to other -isms: sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc. Minorities always end up carrying the burden of fighting for equality, but it also requires that people who don't experience those inequities sincerely wish for change as well.