Deen's being pilloried for the wrong offense

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With the exception of chitlins, I'm not a fan of Southern cooking, especially those plates that go heavy on lard and butter.

My family, which likes its food fried and drenched in as much cooking oil as the next, made its way north from the Carolinas just as the daily humiliations of Jim Crow became a bit too much to bear.

They left the segregated buses, movie theaters and lunch counters behind, but they held on to many of the comfort foods that had become the birthright of every Southerner, regardless of race. Not everyone could vote down South, but artery-clogging foods never discriminated on the basis of color or class.

Southern cooking, as we would discover decades later, is an equal-opportunity dispatcher to the Great Beyond. It has a black face called "soul food" and a white face called "Southern cuisine," distinguished only by the degree of seasoning and the color of the person stirring the ladle.

At 66, Paula Deen, the queen of Southern cooking, is the same age as the blacks who would've been the younger part of the trek north in the middle of the last century. That's a generation of folks who intuitively understand her and don't appear to be the least bit freaked out that she admitted in a deposition that she used what is ridiculously referred to as "the n-word" 30 years ago.

Asking a white Southern woman of a certain age whether she ever used that particular racial epithet is equivalent to asking the most innocent-looking mutt in the world whether it has ever barked at a mail carrier. Of course she's used the word. That's the answer that got Ms. Deen into trouble -- not the obvious lie that she "only" used the word once in three decades. There's probably perjury galore in the bowels of her testimony, but that's minor compared to the fallout from her admission in the court of corporate -- not public -- opinion.

Until recently, Ms. Deen, who lost several lucrative sponsorship deals amounting to millions along with her perch on the Food Network, has never apologized for being a creature of the South at a particular time in our nation's tragic history. "I is what I is," she said, trying to strike both a defiant and conciliatory tone as her kingdom of Crisco slipped away. Meanwhile, she doesn't seem to have alienated her black fans much.

It is interesting -- and a bit ironic -- that the doyenne of Southern fried cooking is being sued by a white woman who alleges that Ms. Deen and members of her family condoned a racially hostile work environment. It sounds like "the n-word" was dragged into the drama for the inflammatory effect it has on white folks who are afraid that blacks turn into pillars of salt whenever they hear it.

Corporations not directly involved in the distribution of rap music want nothing to do with that word. They'd rather be accused of polluting the water, poisoning the air or irradiating the food supply than be associated with a white celebrity who has admitted using that word, even in passing.

Ms. Deen has been accurately accused of having an antebellum mentality, especially after sharing her fantasy of an elegant plantation wedding for her brother that would feature docile black men in white suits serving food and drinks -- but that's a long way from subjecting black employees to routine bombardment of the n-word. Her employees of all colors are more likely to have heard that word more often in their own homes.

If uttering the word once or even a hundred times in the last 30 years is considered a reasonable criteria for banishing a celebrity to the netherworld, Paula Deen would have plenty of company. That's not to excuse the use of this ugly, hateful word, but there's something to be said for cultural context and realpolitik.

We know that most Southerners and a lot of Northerners used that word routinely in the middle of the last century or even more recently. We know that the n-word is commonly used by young blacks today and was once quite routine among blacks of every generation. I've used it at least 10 times this year, but only once in the presence of a white person -- and that was for shock effect.

There's nothing shocking about Paula Deen's use of the word. She's the product of a bigoted, hypocritical upbringing in America. It would be shocking if people her age weren't bigoted.

In any case, it is only a matter of time before she prostrates herself before Oprah and begs forgiveness. If she had to be demonized, I wish it was because of all the arteries she clogged over the years and not this pathetic nonsense.

tonynorman

Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1631 or on Twitter @TonyNormanPG.


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