The 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.