The Paula Deen Controversy: It’s Worse Than You Think

A lot of people are angry that celebrity chef, Paula Deen, has admitted to using the N-word to refer to African Americans. In the deposition, she went so far as to describe scenarios where the use of the word may be appropriate. As a result of this controversy, Deen has lost contracts and endorsements from the Food Network, Smithfield, Walmart, Sears Holdings, and Caesars Entertainment Company. Ballantine Books has also decided not to publish her newest cookbook slated for an October release; this book was supposed to be the first of a five book deal.

Once the public uproar was in full blaze, Deen crafted a two-minute video apology stating, “I was wrong…that is no excuse…forgive me.” However, she never really admits to anything, except for the possibility of hurting others. This turn of events has brought Deen’s fans to her defense, causing her book sales to soar. Last week, she used her Today Show television spot to thank her fans and supporters.

In her video apology, released a few days prior to her television appearance, she stated, “My family and I are not the kind of people that the press is trying to say we are.” This is where it gets interesting. The press is mostly talking about her use of the N-word and analyzing the sincerity of her apology but neither of these are the main issue concerning  Deen or her family. The primary issues are addressed in a discrimination civil action suit against Paula Deen and five companies owned by Deen and her relatives, including her sons (Jamie and Bobby Deen) and her brother (Earl W. “Bubba” Hiers).

The suit lists the plaintiff as Lisa T. Jackson, a Caucasian woman, who was employed by the “Paula Deen Family of Companies” from February 2005 until April 19, 2010. Jackson served as General Manager for Uncle Bubba’s restaurant for the majority of that time. The suit reads like a drama movie from the 1700s. In addition to the infamous description concerning Deen’s vision for a plantation-style wedding, including n***** waiters dressed in suits, the claim also includes repeated offenses degrading female and African American employees of the Paula Deen Family restaurants.

If any part of Jackson’s claim is true, Deen was aware, participated in, or refused to take corrective action concerning many injustices including her brother’s continuous use of pornography, violence, threats, and sexual advances toward female employees in the work place. Likewise, African American employees were regularly referred to as “n******” or “monkeys.” The environment was allegedly so racially charged that African American employees were expected to use a separate bathroom and a back door entrance. Additionally, the dark-skinned African American employees were required to work in the kitchen. Only white or light-skinned African Americans employees could serve clients. The discrimination also included unequal pay and a lack of leadership advancement for female employees. These allegations are explicit examples of what Civil Rights Activist, Myrlie Evers-Williams meant when she recently said, “Jim Crow is alive, and it’s dressed in a Brooks Brothers suit.” 

Jackson claims that Deen and her family intentionally created a hostile working environment which included institutional racism and sexism. In her interview with the “Today Show,” it is clear that Deen does not see herself as a racist. And we are all challenged in today’s American culture to clearly define what constitutes “racist” behavior. Some may think we are beyond race because white men are not riding around with white sheets over their heads and murdering innocent black boys, or because crosses are not being burned on the front lawns of black folks who move into predominantly white neighborhoods. But the reality is, “We do not live in a post-racial society. Racism is alive and well in America!”

Police officers are still stopping black people on the streets and harassing young black men and throwing them in jail for lengthy sentences. The Trayvon Martin murder trial would not be happening today if not for an uproar in the African American community which demanded justice for the life of this young black male. There are still economic injustices including wage gaps, which negatively impact women and racial/ethnic minorities. There is still a disparity in educational choices between minority children who may attend public schools in poor communities or have their schools taken away versus the white elite who can attend thriving public or private schools. Clearly, many of our churches are still segregated on Sunday mornings. Additionally, the various perspectives surrounding our political conversations, including the recent Supreme Court decision on the Voting Rights Act and the Senate’s Immigration Vote, often reveal that we have a long way to go concerning race in America.

Deen’s controversy should be a wakeup call for us to stop pretending that racism is no longer an American problem and confront this elephant in our work places, homes, communities, and the Church. It is in fact dangerous for Americans to insist that we are beyond racism. The perception is dangerous for minority children because they are not prepared when faced with challenges as a result of their skin color. It is dangerous for Caucasian Americans because it gives them the freedom to not pay attention or plead ignorance when racial actions are taking place right under their noses. It is dangerous for educated and intellectual people because we can force ourselves to believe that everyone has the same opportunities in America and therefore, we do not have to confront the structures that continue to promote inequality. It is dangerous for lower income minorities because it robs them of passion and hope that things will ever get better in spite of their hard work. Finally, it is dangerous because this perception never brings families, churches, and communities together to confront this monster we call racism—and we must boldly confront it and call it what it is—and stop this vicious cycle from perpetuating across generations. Some brave souls have to stand up and say: This sin is not going to continue in my family, in my church, or in my community while I’m on watch. Racism is wrong. Racism brings out the worst in us. We must stop it; pull it up from the root!

Will you be that brave soul who stands up?