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What Feeds Racism: The Problem With Paula Deen and Good Southern Ladies

• July 01, 2013 • 8:00 AM

(PHOTO: GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY)

Research clearly shows that even “nice” people can be racist.

Last year a past employee of Uncle Bubba’s Seafood and Oyster House, a restaurant owned by Paula Deen, the chef famous for her enthusiasm for Southern cooking, filed a lawsuit against her former employer. Lisa Jackson argued that she worked “in a hostile environment rife with innuendo and racial slurs.” Deen said in her deposition for the case that she had used the “N-word” in the past. “Yes, of course,” she said. “But that’s just not a word that we use as time has gone on. Things have changed since the ’60s in the South.” Though she had, she said, also used the word long after the ’60s. She also had plans to have an antebellum-themed wedding for her brother, complete with black men wearing “long-sleeve white shirts, black shorts, and black bow ties, as waiters.”

As a result of the controversy, initially reported by the National Inquirer, Deen’s empire, some $17 million worth of restaurants and product endorsements and advertising, not to mention cookbooks and a television show, started to collapse. The Food Network said it wouldn’t renew her contract. Within days, Smithfield Foods, Walmart, Sears, K-Mart, Target, and Home Depot all dumped her.

Plantation life. (PHOTO: CREATIVE COMMONS)

But Deen’s alleged racism turned out to be a little complicated. Her book sales, oddly enough, are up. Some who knew her rushed to argue that she really wasn’t that bad. As one black woman who supported Deen explained to the New York Times: “I get it, believe me. But what’s hard for people to understand is that she didn’t mean it as racist. It sounds bad, but that’s not what’s in her heart. She’s just from another time.”

And that’s because racists can still be really nice people. And not just nice as in well dressed and has good table manners. Racists, it turns out, are often actually nice, as in caring and generous.

Paula Deen is or was a racist. That much is clear. She’s just a racist who happens to not also be a mean-spirit or vindictive person. She does volunteer work. She pays her employees well. She donates extensively, giving money to the American Diabetes Association and one particular orphanage in Savannah, and makes additional contributions to combat hunger and homelessness.

Deen’s charitable work is something for which she should be commended. But that’s only part of her story. What sort of person is Deen? “You can come to Savannah, and the people are so sweet and so nice,” she once said. Her 2010 coffee table book, Paula Deen’s Savannah Style, which ispacked with advice and nostalgia,” promises to “make it easy to bring gracious Southern living to homes north and south of the Mason-Dixon Line.”

This personality type, the host of events characterized by gracious Southern living, if warm-hearted and charitable, is very much implemented in a form of structural racism. David Denby wrote about this type, the GSLs, in his 2011 New Yorker review of The Help, a movie about race relations in Civil Rights-era Mississippi:

[The women] show up at Junior League luncheons wearing silk flower-print dresses, their hair in beehives and bouffant flips garnished with barrettes; they must walk around in rollers most of the time, prepping for these events. They squeal and jump when they see one another, and then smile as they close ranks against the black women who raised them. Propped up by racist pseudo-science, they think that they’re doing their Christian duty for their children by throwing the maids out of the house bathrooms.

The connection between GSLs and racism is not coincidental. They’re not generally evil people; They do think they’re doing their Christian duty. While Deen often discusses how her own family is hardly patrician—her father owned a gas station and she grew up in a house without a bathroom; her first husband “lacked a steady job;” earlier in her life she worked as a wallpaper hanger—the  general lifestyle she’s pushing is much fancier. “I am proud to be a Southerner, Deen said once. “I think Southern hospitality is very…. I don’t think it’s just a term. I think it really exists.” The problem with things “packed with” Southern nostalgia is that all of this gracious living requires, after all, a certain structural inequality.

Racism, very generally, is the belief that people from a certain race share characteristics that make that group as a whole less or more desirable, and inferior or superior. But racism doesn’t just represent the attitude of people like Birmingham Commissioner of Public Safety Bull Connor, the man who ordered the use of fire hoses and attack dogs on demonstrators marching to desegregate the Alabama city in 1963 and said menacingly, “All you gotta do is tell them you’re going to bring the dogs. Look at ‘em run. I want to see the dogs work.”

Real racism, today’s racism, is often a lot more subtle and subliminal. In their 2011 research investigating human empathy, Italian psychologists Matteo Forgiarini, Marcello Gallucci, and Angelo Maravita showed participants movies of needles pricking black and white hands. The psychologists measured nervous system activity (to gauge empathy). They discovered that white people were more likely to feel empathy for the white hands. Black people were more likely to feel empathy for the black hands.

Even kind people are simply kinder to people who look like them. They feel more empathy for such people. A 2010 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found something interesting about the way that physical, subconscious racism works:

Typically, when people observe others perform a simple task, their motor cortex region fires similarly to when they are performing the task themselves. However, the … research team … found that participants’ motor cortex was significantly less likely to fire when they watched the visible minority men perform the simple task. In some cases when participants watched the non-white men performing the task, their brains actually registered as little activity as when they watched a blank screen.

It wasn’t that the white participants hated or actively disliked non-white people—they may have been rather welcoming and progressive—but that when black or Asian men did things on screen, it simply didn’t measure as meaningful. This is why essentially kind and emphatic people don’t recognize that they have racial prejudices.

Which brings us to the food. Deen is selling nostalgia for a certain kind of lifestyle. Rich, calorie-laden, and delicious though it is, the food that we typically associate with the butter-hungry chef is of the sort that comes from a world in which the people who ate and enjoyed it had the benefits of a structurally impoverished underclass of people to prepare it.

United Daughters of the Confederacy. Dedication and ribbon cutting ceremony for the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library, Biloxi, Mississippi. (PHOTO: CREATIVE COMMONS)

One of her particularly delectable dishes is smothered quail, an entree made with sautéed mushrooms, chopped celery, and sour cream. Today you can make the meal in about two hours; historically, the hunting of the quail, the gathering and preparation of all of those ingredients, and the cooking—not to mention the serving and clean-up—would take all day and require a small army of domestic servants. Or, well, slaves.

Another signature dish, now widely popular across the United States, is Deen’s pork shoulder with Spanish rice. Pork shoulder is commonly served among the higher classes today, but it started out as soul food, a part of the pig that was cast off to slaves because it was “a cheap cut of meat the slave owners didn’t want.” Once slaves figured out how to make it tasty, the white people incorporated it into their diets.

All of this is not to say that one is in some way a “racist” for enjoying grits or timpano. Indeed, much of Southern cooking is an amalgamation of things with sauces and creams, fried and fricasseed from all sorts of different places. In addition to traditional English food, many crops and dishes came to the American South from West Africa with the slaves, like stewing techniques and the peanut. Okra and rice cultivation (so important to the economic history of Savannah) also come from Africa. Southern food, in fact, reflects the fusion of the meals of the oppressor and the meals of the oppressed.

And there’s nothing wrong with enjoying foods originally created under oppressive conditions. We don’t worry much about the status of women or the working poor when we attend Renaissance Fairs or tour Victorian mansions.

But this is a nostalgia fetish, and a lot of GSLs strike me as just too damn close to the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Biloxi Ladies Garden club, about which we are right to be a little uncomfortable. This is nostalgia for a specific period of time. Chauncey DeVega wrote at Daily Kos that “Paula Deen’s nostalgia for Jim and Jane Crow is a yearning for a world that was based upon legal violence and casual cruelty towards black Americans.” But that’s not quite it. Southern state legislatures and local governments enacted Jim Crow laws, which mandated segregation across the South, beginning in the 1870s, after Reconstruction, a decade after the Civil War was over.

The Deen-style GSL nostalgia harkens back to an even earlier time, before Jim Crow laws existed. She really wanted her brother to have the experience of a “very southern plantation style wedding.” This was a time when Margaret Mitchell’s heroine in Gone With the Wind could angrily address one of her slaves using that word that caused all of Deen’s problems.

But Scarlett O’Hara admonishes herself at once: “I’ve said ‘nigger’ and Mother wouldn’t like that at all.” A lady, after all, just doesn’t use that word.

Daniel Luzer
Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Daniel_Luzer.

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