It seems that everyone has an opinion on the Food Network’s decision to “fire” Paula Deen, the first lady of deep-fried Southern cooking.
Opinions really are like elbows, and I have one of my own regarding the network’s decision not to renew Deen’s contract. But the most troubling part to me is that the pundits have seen fit to drag out and dust off the tired old Southern stereotypes in the aftermath of last week’s racial brouhaha.
For those who live too deep in the hollers, Deen was fired after a legal deposition came to light in which she admitted to having used the “N” word, the racial epithet that makes even the crassest among us cringe when it is used in casual conversation.
To hear the pundits tell it, the South is still chock-full of old white men who would gladly go back to the days of black children being forced to drink from a separate water fountain and black ladies being forced to sit in the back of the bus because they just aren’t good enough to associate with “white folks.”
That isn’t the South I know, and I’ve lived here all my life.
And while there is no doubt that racism is alive and well in the modern-day South, racism is alive and well everywhere . . . and I’ve witnessed just as much of it in my brief travels north of the Mason-Dixon line as I have right here at home.
But to hear the pundits tell it, we have a patent on racism here in the old confederacy. And not all of these wordsmiths are Yanks.
Consider Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Jim Galloway, who used the Deen deposition to broach the subject Sunday of whether the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down the election laws stemming from the Jim Crow days.
The high court is expected to rule this week on whether a portion of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, originally intended as a temporary provision requiring federal supervision for most Southern states to amend their election laws, can be struck down as out-dated and no longer necessary.
Galloway makes the case that the court should leave the law intact.
Regardless of whether one feels the states of the South can be trusted to make their own laws without attempting to impede the vote of blacks or other minorities, the bigger question is what in heaven’s name does Deen’s opinion on the subject of race relations have to do with the South as a whole?
I’m not necessarily convinced that things Deen said years ago are an indictment of her personal attitude today, so how on earth can we draw the conclusion that she is representative of the entire South? Even if Deen does harbor a deep-seated racist attitude, she does not speak for everyone from Georgia to Arkansas, regardless of her celebrity status. If I want to know how to use a pound of butter to fry my ice cream, I’ll seek out Deen’s opinion. If I’m interested i human kindness and the integrity of open elections, probably not.
It isn’t just Galloway who is making the case that we’re all still racists here in the South.
Writing for Time Magazine, Columbia University professor John McWhorter defended Deen and criticized Food Network for firing her by saying that, essentially, that’s just the way that it is.
“Who is really surprised that she has used the N-word in her life?” McWhorter asked. “It would be downright strange if she hadn’t, and we can assume the same of pretty much any white Southerner of a certain age.”
That’s as ludicrous as it is offensive. To be sure, I’ve heard more than a few older Southerners — Christians who do not harbor any ill-will towards any race — drop the “N-word” in casual conversation. They don’t have a racist bone in their body; they simply came of age in a different time and don’t really think about the connotations associated with the word.
On the other hand, my mother grew up in the same decade as Deen, and I’ve never heard her use that word. Both my grandmothers were born and raised in the age of segregation and deep racial divides in the South, and I’ve never heard either of them use that word. In fact, of the white Southerners I know, there are far more who I have never heard utter the word than there are who I have.
To be fair, there was a time not so long ago when black Americans were treated like subhuman life forms right here in the region we love. In the South, we have long prided ourselves on our hospitality, while on the whole we were anything but towards our black neighbors for way too long.
And, to be fair, we here on the northern Cumberland Plateau are a bit more separated from the race bitterness than our neighbors in the Deep South. Even dating back to the Civil War, there was not as much a desire to hang on to the shameful tradition of slave-ownership here as there was in other regions. Although it was based on more than just the issue of slavery, there was far less support for secession from the union in East Tennessee than in West Tennessee, and as we all know, Scott County opted to declare its independence when Tennessee did vote to secede.
While we’re being fair, it deserves emphasizing that you don’t have to travel far outside your Scott County home to find a racist attitude today. But fair is fair — and it’s fair to say that those attitudes isn’t the prevailing attitude, even if it is convenient for the pundits to broad-brush.
As country star Brad Paisley sings, “It ain’t like you and me can re-write history.” But that doesn’t mean we have to be chained to it.
■ Ben Garrett is editor of the Independent Herald. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.