Skip to main content

Opinion: Half-baked apology is recipe for racial indigestion

By Tricia Rose, Special to CNN
updated 6:41 AM EDT, Thu June 27, 2013
Southern TV personality and chef Paula Deen is the author of 14 cookbooks, runs a bi-monthly magazine and is the owner of Savannah restaurant The Lady and Sons. Here she attends the 2010 CMT Music Awards at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville. Southern TV personality and chef Paula Deen is the author of 14 cookbooks, runs a bi-monthly magazine and is the owner of Savannah restaurant The Lady and Sons. Here she attends the 2010 CMT Music Awards at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville.
HIDE CAPTION
Southern TV chef Paula Deen
Southern TV chef Paula Deen
Southern TV chef Paula Deen
Southern TV chef Paula Deen
Southern TV chef Paula Deen
Southern TV chef Paula Deen
Southern TV chef Paula Deen
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Tricia Rose: Paula Deen doesn't seem to see why she offended people
  • She says Deen doesn't connect her actions to broader, endemic conditions in society
  • Deen also should explain idea of a plantation wedding with all-black staff, Rose says

Editor's note: Tricia Rose is the incoming director of Brown University's Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America, where she teaches Africana studies. She is the author of "Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America" and "The Hip Hop Wars: What We Talk About When We Talk About Hip Hop -- And Why It Matters."

(CNN) -- As Paula Deen's apology tour continues, it becomes more and more disturbing to watch.

With each heartfelt tearful statement, Deen seems completely uninterested in the broader contexts of her comments, missing ample opportunities to address the reality of racism today both in the form of cultural and social interactions, but even more powerfully by policies and actions.

I heard her speak very little about the extraordinary injuries and injustices black people face, I have not heard her show alliance with those who fight racism nor show solidarity with or compassion for black people based on the profound impact racism has on their lives.

Tricia Rose
Tricia Rose
Stay in touch!
Don't miss out on the conversation we're having at CNN Living. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for the latest stories and tell us what's influencing your life.

What kind of heartfelt apology intended to prove you are not a racist ignores these gestures?

Deen is steadfast in her denials about being a racist. But she seems to explain away her actions or redirect the conversation when asked about the specifics of her comments and their implications.

Her reflections, apologies and justifications are striking in their inability to see things from the perspective of those she has offended, and how they might feel in the face of her actions.

Plus, she can't seem to connect her actions to broader, endemic conditions in society.

This could be a teachable moment to discuss how complex racism is, how good intentions cannot do the work of anti-racism education, and how even people who like black people can behave in ways that do racial harm.

Paula Deen: Kill me if you never sinned
Paula Deen's emotional interview

Yes, Paula Deen, good people can hold racist ideas even though they might not be aware of them.

Instead, it has turned in to a maudlin, self-absorbed reality-TV style drama.

Her apology on the "Today" show on Wednesday is a case in point. In it, Deen was asked about her use of the N-word.

In reply, she emphasized that she had a gun put to her head and that the black man wielding it was someone to whom she had given a loan.

Her emphasis asks us to empathize with her. I guess we are to say, "Oh sure, with a gun to my head I'd resort to racial epithets, too, especially if I gave that N-word some loan money."

She has other options here: ones that might contribute to our broader racial conversation and knowledge about race.

She could have said: "It was a horrible word to use given its powerful centuries long role, especially in the South, as a way to dehumanize black people. And, my identity as a white Southern woman (one whose family were slave holders) only makes it worse. It undermines my belief in racial equality and counters my efforts to support racial justice."

Later in the interview, when "Today" anchor Matt Lauer returned to the issue of her use of the N-word, she deflected her use, and instead described how the constant use of the word by the young black staffers in her kitchen hurts HER.

What?

I am not a fan of black youth using the word so casually, extensively and publicly, but there is a remarkable lack of self-awareness to imagine that their use of the term is equivalent to her use of the word.

What does their use have to do with hers? How is it that we are talking about her injury again?

Her lack of awareness was evident again in her desire to have a plantation style wedding party, which would feature a black-only wait staff. She thought the black-only wait staff - who, in historical context would likely be performing as slave workers -- would be an entertaining theme.

Was she going to have the white guests perform Southern plantation era behavior of "cultured" and vicious racial domination, too?

Who was supposed to be entertained by this?

Perhaps some of the apology tour could be devoted to explaining her vision for this party and why she thought it a good idea.

And, ideally, this would be followed by an admission that she should have considered the downside of having black low-wage workers, who as a group face extraordinary levels of job discrimination and other hurdles, play slaves for white partygoers.

I suspect she imagines no ill racial intent in this, either.

Frankly, she isn't alone in this kind of thinking.

Our public understanding about how racism works today is thwarted by the personalized response that focuses on intention, rather than action.

"Good" people are very often blind to and support disturbing and discriminatory actions, behaviors and ideas. Today, there is widespread normalized racial discrimination. One study shows that white job applicants with a criminal record are nearly twice as likely to get a call back for low-wage work than equally qualified black applicants with a college degree and no criminal record.

For this apology tour to do real good, Deen might consider taking an anti-racist position, reaching out to black people and honoring the pain many face as a result of serious racial discrimination, and thinking about how she might have contributed to it.

Deen might use her extensive media platform to draw attention to racial injustice today, to show the broader public just how much it saturates American society, even for those who think they are above it.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Tricia Rose.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
CNN Living reflects your life. From advice for modern parents to the freshest news in food: It's all here.
Summer is practically synonymous with cooking food over the fire and sharing it with friends and family. Here's how to grill great food, step-by-step.
updated 9:16 AM EDT, Mon July 14, 2014
Do you wish you could outsource the summer cooking, cleaning and camp planning associated with kids? You can.
updated 8:08 AM EDT, Wed July 9, 2014
In April, Carol Rossetti began a personal project to continue practicing her drawing technique, "while saying something worthy."
updated 8:49 AM EDT, Wed June 25, 2014
"Obvious Child" has all the story arcs for romantic-comedy gold, but one of the film's major topics isn't often broached in theaters: abortion.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Tue May 27, 2014
A teen planned to build a tiny house with her parents for a school project, but after her father's sudden death, more powerful lessons emerged.
updated 12:15 PM EDT, Thu May 8, 2014
Our mothers and the women we look up to offer our first lessons in beauty and personal maintenance. What do they tell us about loving our gray hair?
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Fri May 23, 2014
rings matrimony
When a partner is terminally ill, do you still go through with the wedding? Meet people who said 'I do' with a future in doubt.
updated 5:40 PM EDT, Wed April 2, 2014
You have a new home or your first apartment and dozens of crazy ideas to make it look the way you want. But what's your decorating style?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT