By Roxane Gay
One of the most popular songs in the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical “Avenue Q” is “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist.” The chorus goes, “Everyone’s a little bit racist sometimes. Doesn’t mean we go around committing hate crimes. Look around and you will find no one’s really color blind. Maybe it’s a fact we should face, everyone makes judgments based on race.” There’s a lot of truth to that song. Everyone holds certain judgments about others and those judgments are often informed by race. We’re human. We’re flawed. Most people are simply at the mercy of centuries of cultural conditioning. The better among us try, to varying degrees of success, to overcome that cultural conditioning — or, as recent revelations about popular, butter-loving Food Network host Paula Deen suggest, we don’t.
Paula Deen, who lives in Savannah, Ga., revels in Southern culture and her shows on the Food Network pay decadent and unapologetic homage to all manner of Southern cooking. She is a proud daughter of the South and, apparently, she carries the effects of the South’s complex and fraught racial history.
A former employee, Lisa Jackson, is currently suing Deen and her brother Earl “Bubba” Hiers for workplace harassment. A damning transcript of Deen’s deposition found its way online yesterday and in it, Deen revealed all manner of impolitic views on race. When asked if she used the N-word, Deen blithely replied, “Yes, of course,” as if it was a silly question, as if everyone uses the N-word. She’s probably right.
Deen went on to explain that she used the word to describe a man who put a gun to her head during a holdup at the bank where she worked, as if this should justify the epithet. As Deen noted, she wasn’t feeling “real favorable towards him.” That’s fair enough. No one would feel favorable toward a man holding a gun to their head. But one sin, however more grave, should not justify another.
She also discussed the racist, anti-Semitic and redneck jokes told in her kitchens and her husband’s regular use of the N-word. When asked what words she uses to describe a person’s race, she said, “I try to go with whatever the black race is wanting to call themselves at each given time. I try to go along with that and remember that.” The entire transcript is as revealing as it is fascinating; it’s a bit funny and a bit sad because Deen is so honest and her attitude is utterly unsurprising. I suppose I should be outraged, but I’m not. I’m actually baffled by how much play this story is getting in the news, where everyone seems shocked that an older white woman from the Deep South is racist and harbors a nostalgia for the antebellum era. Or perhaps my lack of surprise reveals my own biases. Though I know better, I have certain ideas about the South. Is this where I say, “I have Southern friends”?