Media hypocrisy and the n-word: Was Paula Deen fired for her sins or ours?

Paula Deen showThe response to comments by Paula Deen in a recently leaked civil suit deposition has been swift, virulent, and as hypocritical and counter-productive as the ham-fisted and cowardly discussion of race and class usually is in this country.

It shows very well the function of white Southerners, the more “down-home” the better, in the broader American drama of facing our racist past and present.

The hope implicit in the trashing of Deen and her ilk is that complacent middle-class suburbanites in their segregated neighborhoods can continue to ignore the deeply ingrained racism that shapes so much of our society. How so? By isolating it in a particular class of white Americans, namely white working-class Southerners, especially the ones who actually interact with working-class black Southerners on a daily basis.

The drama assumed hilarious proportions on the recent Daily Show installment in which Deen was tarred with every redneck stereotype in the book as punishment for her admission that she has used the n-word at some point in her life.

Deen is herself very funny, and admirably self-deprecating.  She can handle redneck jokes and is a master of the genre herself. Getting dropped by the Food Network is not funny, though, and she surely realizes that the prejudiced perception of her white Southern cultural style is as much a reason for the treatment she’s getting as her own alleged prejudice.

At any rate, if the deposition testimony represents the extent of her racist feelings, she wouldn’t even make the list of the top 100 million most racist Americans. News flash: The truly dangerous American racists are far less honest and far more manipulative than Deen is. The sad spectacle of the supposedly non-racist American media establishment burning the redneck scapegoat is just going to lead to more racism — the kind that matters.

Multi-generational white Southerners are not any more racist than racists in Colorado, New Jersey, or the new Florida of George Zimmerman. But they are arguably more comfortable than most other Americans when it comes to discussing their racial feelings.

As the great black novelist Ralph Ellison noted 50 years ago, “Southern whites cannot walk, talk, sing, conceive of laws or justice, think of sex, love, the family or freedom without responding to the presence of the Negroes.” Anyone familiar with white and black Southern literature, from William Faulkner to Alice Walker, is aware that white Southern racism is more complex, intimate, and emotional than its Northern cousin. The immediate blacklisting of white Southerners who have the courage to examine their own racial feelings in good faith advances no useful anti-racist purpose.

Let’s look at the specifics of what Deen confessed in the “smoking-gun” deposition. She, a 66-year-old white woman from Georgia, has admitted that she has used the n-word in the past, in a private setting. Anyone who claims to be shocked by this is either not from the United States or is being maliciously disingenuous. She referred to a time when she used the term in anger (in the presence of her husband) after being robbed by a black suspect. I will admit now publicly that I have committed the same transgression.

The fact that people are pretending to be outraged by the use of hurtful language in a situation like this is a key symptom of American racial hypocrisy. The South in general, including New Orleans, my hometown, is becoming more racially segregated in a geographical sense than it’s ever been. More and more, white people are choosing to live in areas where they come into ever more limited contact with black people. There is a class dimension, too, as certain areas become so expensive that desperate poor people driven to crime, whatever their race, are far less likely to appear.

To be extra sure, new American racists, the kind without Southern accents, sit in their cars with guns in their laps waiting for unsuspecting black pedestrians to make a wrong turn. Savannah is not a gleaming new lily-white “gated community,” and neither are New Orleans, Memphis, and a host of other older Southern cities.

The older variety of Southern racism was predicated on physical closeness, which doesn’t excuse its gross injustices. But mass segregation, fomented by politically and media-driven fear-mongering that dare not call itself racist, can’t be construed as confronting the problem.

The New Orleans of my youth was racially very charged. During and after their college days at Millsaps College, in Mississippi, my parents were very involved in the Civil Rights struggle. Their Jackson home was under continuing surveillance by either local or federal authorities. My mom worked with the Jackson- based Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights; my dad was a labor organizer who also taught adult literacy classes at Tougaloo college, and both were members of the Southern Student Organizing Committee. My dad was present at Stokely Carmichael’s famous 1966 address in which Carmichael politely asked white SNCC workers to form their own organization.

We were raised with strict rules against n-word usage, though if you were to ask either of my parents, or me, the same question asked of Paula Deen, our answer would be the same: “Yes, of course.” My white and Hispanic friends in the 9th ward neighborhood I lived in for years used the n-word all the time, as did their parents. Usually it went something like, “Be careful down by Piety Park (a block away), dey got those n—– boys hanging around there.”

I used the n-word with this group of peers; I also have uttered the word in rage (after experiencing, like Paula Deen, a gun in my face), in jest, in the company of white people, and in the company of black people, too. Indeed, I was once called the n-word myself by a black friend expressing approbation.

Litmus tests about who may have uttered the n-word, for any reason, ever, are a poor substitute for assessing people’s political and economic choices regarding race. In a political culture driven by symbolism alone, you can be David Duke as long as nobody finds a hood in your closet. If you doubt me, just watch George Zimmerman get acquitted of shooting the unarmed Trayvon Martin just because Zimmerman knows how to say “African American.”

Let’s not kid ourselves. Deen’s expressive style is undoubtedly the central factor in people’s willingness to assume the worst about her. Whatever her economic background, she has chosen to express herself in a white Southern working class idiom. The fact that Deen also shows how much this idiom has in common with black working class culture (in cuisine, speech, and style) provides a few extra calories of irony.

The n-word is, in fact, more common in white Southern working-class speech than in the speech of other white social classes, in and out of the South.  And of course the same word is also highly common in black working-class speech. Is it possible that charges of racism are often just based on classist prejudices about appropriate ways to express oneself in genteel company?

Does use of terms considered ethnically or sexually offensive reveal one to be prejudiced or simply unschooled in the subtle linguistic games of gentility? The number of comment posts over the weekend calling Deen “trashy” suggests the answer. For those who like a pink scapegoat rather than a brown one, Deen is the prime choice.

However, as with scapegoats generally, her public humiliation doesn’t ameliorate any problem. It just helps other people wash their hands of it.

C.W. Cannon teaches English and New Orleans Studies at Loyola University. 

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  • As a northern white guy who has lived in New Orleans the past 15 years, it always reminds me I’m not from here when I hear some southern white guy get all bent out of shape when it’s suggested he should cool it with the
    n-word–the single most hateful word in the English language, a word that just so happens to have no analogue for white men.

    It’s absolutely true that many northerners are racist and media types mercilessly caricature southerners in base, reductive ways. Check. Go cry on New Jersey’s shoulder, and be sure to tell women everywhere all about

    Look, I never hold anyone’s feelings against them. But if the n-word is your go-to word when you’re afraid and angry, regardless of the situation, I suggest that’s cause for reflection. But as C.W. tells it, the fact that he uses the n-word in many contexts makes him a kind of man of the people. To object to his usage is to be a classist, hypocritical snob.

    I’m all for this adult conversation about race people talk about. We can acknowledge our regional and cultural differences, perhaps even help
    each other find our respective blind spots and so forth. But I just don’t get
    why it’s so important to reserve the right to use the n-word. Why defend its
    use so fiercely? Because northerners can be sanctimonious jerks? Because Paula Deen was publicly humiliated for making some of her employees feel humiliated? Because protecting n-word usage for white people is a great moral cause of our time?

  • Jenel Hazlett

    Sorry CW as a white 9th Ward kid who grew up hearing the n-word too, it ain’t right. When it’s used, even in anger and fear associated with a gun in your face, it ain’t nuthin BUT racist. Think about it. It’s the person holding the gun that matters not the color of their skin. Yet somehow this is what gets the focus. Ain’t right.

  • crabioscar

    Man did you just hit the nail on the head, Derek Bridges. I also don’t default to the n-word when I’m angry, even at a black man. But this is the first time I’ve ever heard someone call me elitist for the non-habit.

    You know what’s worse though, according to Doc C? I live in the Bywater.

  • C.w. Cannon

    Let me clarify something important. I am not arguing that use of the n-word by white people should be viewed as socially acceptable. The incidents I refer to when I used the word all took place in my childhood and youth, despite my upbringing in a committed anti-racist household. My point is that anti-racist commitment involves a lot more than just promising to not use that one word and then self- righteously heaping vitriol on those who may have used it at some point in their lives. These comments so far prove my basic thesis that many white Americans continue to glibly refuse any racial-political self-examination beyond the pain-free promise of avoiding a single word (meanwhile trumpeting their superiority to people who have uttered it, even once, for any reason).

  • I thought I was clear that I wasn’t condemning you for having uttered the single word in question. It was your lack of self-examination I was pointing to (not that you didn’t go through some level of self-examination necessarily, just that I don’t see it in on the page). And I’m also not sure what form of “racial-political self-examination” you’re asking of the reader. I’m supposed to look at the Paula Deen brouhaha and think she’s being unfairly persecuted? Perhaps if Ms. Deen had gone through a bit more self-examination–as most white southern men and women her age probably have–she wouldn’t find herself in this mess.

    Okay, I’ve stipulated many racists live in the north and media outlets routinely caricature southern whites, especially on matters of race. Now what?

  • Be Mock

    If the author thinks Deen’s firing is about the so-called “n-word” then he needs to read the rest of the deposition, and then do some more Google searching, or whatever he uses, on Deen’s “complicated” “intimate” history with racism. If he thinks there’s no difference between racism in the South and in Colorado today then he would do well to take a read of any one of the dozens of amicus briefs filed in the Voting Rights Act case before the Supreme Court — or easier, read Justice Ginsburg’s dissent yesterday. The rest of this column — I’ll just call it “Lagniappe-al Racism”

  • C.w. Cannon

    Yes, Be Mock, I think Justice Ginsburg’s dissent is right on
    point, but I think the terrible decision of the conservative judges was based
    on a refusal to understand how the language and symbols of racism have
    transposed in the past fifty years. In other words, they assumed that since
    they didn’t hear the n-word so much as
    in the past, that racism had somehow gone away among the “good” people who don’t
    use those nasty words. In other words, their misapprehension can be traced to a
    poor understanding of Southern history, and especially of white class dynamics
    in determining who pulls the strings and who takes the blame. I also agree that Deen’s hazy racially tinged
    aesthetics are more pernicious than her n-word usage (if limited to what she
    admitted), yet also far more typical. Ever seen the commercials for Southern
    Oaks “plantation” right here in the local viewing area? That’s where Deen gets
    her dreamy wedding images from. This “Olde South” imagination is as much a
    creature of Hollywood as anything else, it’s American pop culture in collusion
    with vicious political forces that have it in for the poor in general. But even worse than Gone with the Wind fantasy
    world is the way old race-baiting rhetorical categories have been severed from
    their racist past in many Americans’ imagination, especially the non-southern ones. All that anti-Big
    Government stuff, the fear that some Americans don’t want to work and the lie
    that they’re leeching significant amounts of taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars—these
    GOP standards date back to the fight against Reconstruction but are now
    de-racialized rhetorically (not in economic and political effect). That’s why I think freaking out over the
    redneck caricature begging forgiveness for having said a bad word is misguided
    rage, that would be better spent against the real architects of new racism
    today, from Nixon to Reagan and beyond. I also think the tenor of the attacks
    on Deen is a sad case of racial goodwill meeting an ugly form of cultural and
    class prejudice that the ridiculers are loathe to examine in themselves, probably
    since they so obviously deem themselves above the fray of these messy social
    problems that afflict other Americans.

  • Froggage

    Yeah, you’re ignoring everything else she said and just focusing on the n-word, which you, as a white person who grew up in the south, have declared not to be a sign of racism because everybody used it. Also, how, exactly, does a group of white people light-heartedly/in jest stand around just using the n-word? I’m having a tough time picturing that scenario.

  • mary wiggenhorn

    My parents were born in the first decade of the 20th century, both in the Deep South. I never heard that particular word uttered by either one, ever. I grew up in an upper middle class suburb in the Midwest which had very few minorities, either religious or racial, and I heard the native Midwesterners use it. Words hurt and damage, but so do many other things that are much more subtle.

  • leo Seymour

    So the rap songs of late are racists and this is OK?…… Last time I looked it was not against the law to make a statement in private and use what ever language you choose. We have just heard in the George Zimmerman Trial that Travon Martin called him a “white azz cracker” and a “N-word”. Word commonly used around here by AF. Negro WAS the race of AF for decades – and if this incident of Paula Deen using the word in a private conversation to describe a person who had a gun at her head – well that is NO reason to destroy her. If this is so EVERY African American who has uttered the word on song should be held libel by the same people ruining this woman. Its SLANG people… as are many words and MF and B or B or some of the other alphabet words are much worse and derogatory towards a person. This particular faux measurement of someone’s propensity to be racists by using the N word – would have to prove that most AF ARE racists! Right? I challenge Target and all other stores and record labels to PULL OFF THE SHELVES ANY SONG THAT USES THE N WORD!

  • C.w. Cannon

    Yes, Mary Wiggenhorn, I don’t recall my deep southern parents (who were also civil rights activists) using the word in our presence either–if so it certainly wasn’t common. As I said, we had strict rules in our house against it. I imagine that my motivation for using it after a rough crime experience was an effort to inflict hurt in the only way I felt I could on the person
    who had caused such anguish in me by threatening to kill me. At any rate it was back when I was 16, and my understanding of race and racism has grown exponentially since then. 1970s New Orleans was a rough place in terms of race in the 1970s, yet working class white and working class black did used to share neighborhoods, allowing me to move within both worlds. The growing segregation,not only in terms of race but of class, strikes me as a sad end to a period where a lot of anger was vented (not just verbally) because it seems racism, instead of confronting itself, has just cloaked itself in euphemism. My view is that more American white people, all over the country, should search for their inner racist and exorcize it, rather than patting themselves on the back that they’re not under educated and marginalized working class white people who aren’t savvy enough to master the new racist idioms.

  • mary wiggenhorn

    Well, my parents certainly weren’t civil rights activists, either! I was a teenager and young adult in the 60’s and a lot of what went on passed me by. I am far from being a liberal. My view is that more people, of all races, should search for their inner racist and exorcize it. Some of the most racist conversations/ confrontations I have had were with black people and they were very hurtful. I have been told that I should not treat black people the same way that I treat white people. Really?? I, after much consideration, believe that I treat everyone the same and I intend to continue to do so. Apparently, to some people that’s not acceptable. We live in strange times…

  • f_galton

    It’s just a word, get over it you pansy.

  • f_galton

    Resisting your rapist is racist too.

  • f_galton

    You should examine yourself and try to figure out how you became such a whimpering mangina.

  • f_galton


  • Opinionated Catholic

    Good article. Thoug I am not sure its helpful to throw the George Zimmerman case into where a good many legal observers say the Prosecution has a shaly case and lets recall the State must prove guilt.

  • zeldafaybaker

    Sorry to have to suggest this, as it takes going BEYOND the BASE mentality of the N-WORD…..Look to the REAL STORY ABOUT why this woman is UNFIT ( Literally) to be a spokesperson for food..
    CAN ya’ll SPELL DIABETES?Do you KNOW the REALITY of LIVING with this disease? This is NOT about WORDS. It’s about HEALTH & taking responsibility for what she offers to the PUBLIC gets PAID FOR. The WOMAN FRIES BUTTER! And has DIABETES! She is a HEALTH HAZARD & displays BAD TASTE in GENERAL. She doesn’t even eat at the TABLE! She EATS over the SINK. NO SOUTHERN WOMAN with MANNERS eats like DAT! SHAME! Kiss a DIABETIC TODAY, But NOT This one. She will try to FRY you & have you for BRUNCH. She’d eat a FORK if it was FRIED!

  • zeldafaybaker

    FRY DAT!!!!
    EAT DAT!!!!

  • zeldafaybaker

    Try to WATCH this & NOT CRINGE! I DARE YA!


  • I don’t know what Paula Deen said; but if she needs forgiveness, I’ll forgive her.
    “Do not pay attention to every word people say, or you may hear your servant cursing you— and you know that many times you have cursed others in your heart.” (Ecclesiastes 7: 22)

  • I’m curious. Did you even bother to read the complaint against Deen in the Linda T. Jackson (a white woman) lawsuit or did you simply honor Deen’s privilege as a likeable white Southerner and assume she answered honestly in her down-homey way? If you had read the complaint, you may have been less inclined to appear to condone Deen’s speech. If what Lisa Jackson alleges is true, then Deen not only perpetuates racism in the workplace and upholds discriminatory practices in her company but she also furthers anti-Semitism and sexism and is far more aware of how to manipulate the media and by extension her supporters than you assume. If the allegations are true, then Deen is not a scapegoat as the word scapegoat implies that a person is not actually guilty of anything horrible, but she is an incompetent business owner who should rightfully lose money and stature based on how she’s run her empire. It’s unfortunate that anyone writing for the Lens would appear to defend her without knowing more about the accusations against her, and it’s sad that a writer of such nuance would be complicit in reducing this case to discussions about the N-word. If this case were merely about Paula Deen’s use of offensive language, I wouldn’t even bother to comment. It’s kind of par for the course for more people than I care to engage. But for the record, I think proof that white privilege exists is that so many white people who are supposedly educated about American history and racism persist in looking for excuses to use the word, especially seeking an excuse to use the word in the business environment. I mean, really?

  • zeldafaybaker

    She hid her diabetic condition for three years, all the while pedaling grotesquely unhealthy foods for diabetics and/or thinking people. It wasn’t until she signed with Norvasc, that she admitted the truth. Boiling her in oil would be highly appropriate.

  • zeldafaybaker

    That’ a ridiculous argument. Just sayin’.

  • Naunceling

    Judge threw the entire case out. No merit or truth to the allegations.