Photo Credit: NPR
Wow, it took 99 posts, but here we go. I have to break it out.
Paula Deen was fired by the Food Network and “only” for admitting to using that troublesome word, nigger.
I’m not going to censor this word. If you are squeamish about the word nigger, go on ahead and check in with me on Wednesday. Nigger is a powerful word: it’s a word that hurts, it’s a word that moves, it’s a word that grows and yet also seems to shrink. It’s a word that I don’t censor, not because I’m Black and feel entitled to use it (though these things are true), but because I believe that in order to understand the word one must face it in its fullness. I’m not numb to the word. I use it because I know that it’s powerful. So if you aren’t down with powerful vocabulary today, I’ll see you on Wednesday. And please know that, if you choose to read this, I’m not writing in any sort of anger. Nigger is not an angry word for me. It’s a word of power, not anger, and there is a difference. I’ve learned that nuance over time and I use it with that nuance. Read this post as you will (or not at all).
On the surface, people probably think that Paula Dean learned about the true power of the word nigger on Friday when the Food Network went on ahead and severed it’s ties with her. Though, I must say, I find it to all be very convenient. She was at the end of her contract anyway. Some 12 days away from contract renewal. She’d had a series of poor PR moments over the last 12 months and was kinda sorta gaining momentum on a come-back tour. It is all so very convenient that the Food Network folk were able to make this clean break that makes them look like a prudent company rather than the bad guys who just dropped a beloved star. I’m just sayin’, it is a story that reeks.
Fans on the internet are outraged because they think that Paula got fired for admitting to “just” using nigger. They view her, even, as brave for admitting that she used the word. It’s “only” a word, “everybody” is racist, it’s not a big deal. They think that its hypocritical that Food Network decided to let her go, when we all know that everybody uses that word and so it’s just ok. While it is true that most of the people of color I know weren’t the least bit surprised to learn that Paula Dean goes home and spouts off the word nigger a few times, as some people of her age and of her geographical allegiance are sometimes want to do, you must understand that it is one thing to talk that mess at home and an entirely different thing to talk that mess at work. Especially when you own the workspace. When you take “nigger” outside of the confines of your own four walls, it smacks of something else, not the confidential musings of a queen in her castle.
Paula got fired because Paula admitted to being “impressed” at a restaurant that had a wait-staff that was all Black, who wore white jackets and ties, and then was inspired to have a Civil War era-style wedding, featuring all-black staff in the role of and emulating the behavior of slaves. Paula is the self-styled queen of Southern living. We just didn’t know how southern or during what time period. Now we know. And guess what? Most Americans find that lifestyle to be distasteful. Indeed, the out-loud nostalgic longing for this particular time, a time long gone and long fought over (and still fought over, it seems), is distasteful. And for a woman who was under the advisement of counsel, who knew that this deposition would be public record, and who is the only face of her $17 million brand, she should have known better. There was a way to answer all of the questions posed to her without making herself look like a straight-up old-school racist and without perjuring herself.
I remember, distinctly, the first time I was called a nigger in the full nastiness of the word. I was walking home from middle school by myself after a long day. I was about a block away from home in my very nice and quiet suburban neighborhood. I was about to cross the street, and didn’t really look before I made a step for the street. A car (that was too far away to hit me, and indeed, I was still on the sidewalk, but nonetheless, my actions scared him) slammed on the brakes and came to a stop in front of me. The man in the driver’s seat screamed “nigger!” out of his passenger-side window before speeding away.
I can still see the look in his young son’s eyes as his father screamed the word at me. The child in the passenger’s seat was of elementary school age. Maybe 7? Maybe 8? Old enough to have heard that word many times. Old enough to enjoy his father screaming that word at a real life nigger out of his window. When I think about that moment, I don’t remember the color of the car or the make up of the man’s face. But I can see the smirk on the child’s face, his brown eyes, his blond hair, and the little plaid shorts he was wearing. The boy who saw his first real life nigger. I was that boy’s first nigger.
You see, the reason why it’s not “only the N-word” and why Paula’s actions were reasons for terminating her contract is because it’s the flippant nature of racism that makes it so damned scary. When Paula can answer cheekily to a question about using that word and simply say “yes, of course” is when you know that racism is still pervasive and deep and unwavering. That kind of racism is taught and perpetuated through generations. It makes people comfortable with it and comfortable enough to share it. It is the kind of racism that people don’t feel the need to be ashamed of. The kind of racism that slips out in important moments, like the one Paula found herself in. It can even make people feel so comfortable that they feel they can get away with screaming it out of the window of their car at a 12 year-old girl.
People are looking for justice for Paula. Like, somehow, Paula is going to stop making money and she is going to wither away, destitute or something. I don’t think you have anything to worry about, seeing as local fans (and tourists, I’m sure) lined up out the door to give Paula their financial support over the weekend. And QVC is in “wait and see” mode: Will the outrage spill over more or will they get away with keeping her on and selling her products? All Paula has to do is become really good friends with a prominent person of color (why do I smell a Next Chapter interview on OWN coming in the next year?), do a real apology from the heart, no more of this ridiculous bullshit that she posted on Friday evening. But Paula has to mean it. Paula has to talk about generational racism, and how she won’t teach it to her precious grand children. She needs to talk about how racism starts and stops at home, within those four walls, within her castle.
She needs to talk about how she knows that her behavior and her flippant use of that word and those notions is the reason why families of color who watch her shows or use her products have to steel their children against the racism that she decided was ok to have in her own home and heart.
And no, I won’t be watching her interview on the Today Show on Wednesday because NBC has shamefully made this about Matt Lauer and the Today Show (Commenter onWeekend Today: “I mean, who cancels on Matt Lauer?? Not a smart move!” BLECH!) when it should be about a woman who needs to face her demons. (I freaking hate the Today show now! Augh!)
I’ll leave you with some homework, if you so choose to accept it. Professor Randall Kennedy, a professor at Harvard Law School is one of my favorite thinkers and writers, and he wrote a most excellent book called Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word I had the privilege to read it early as a senior in high school back in 2002. I keep letting people borrow my copies of it, but I try to always keep a copy prominently displayed on a central bookcase in our home. It is a book that you should read. It’s actually a pretty quick one–so add it to your summer reading list. The book is an excellent look at the word, how it is used as both insult and for social purposes, its career in the courts, and the trouble with trying to eradicate it from our lexicon. I don’t think I would have been able to write this post without the lessons of that wonderful work.