Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Can we forgive Paula Deen?

By Dean Obeidallah, Special to CNN
updated 2:11 PM EDT, Sun June 30, 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
  • Dean Obeidallah: Can someone who is a bigot evolve? And does society then forgive them?
  • He says people call Paula Deen a racist and cast her out; that's not good for society, though
  • He says history is full of viewpoints evolving for the better, such as on gay marriage
  • He says some of Deen's apology implausible, but public should be open to redemption

Editor's note: Dean Obeidallah, a former attorney, is a political comedian and frequent commentator on various TV networks including CNN. He is the editor of the politics blog The Dean's Report and co-host of a new CNN podcast "The Big Three" that looks at the top three stories of the week. Follow him on Twitter @deanofcomedy.

(CNN) -- Once a racist, always a racist? Will bigots always be bigots?

Or can people truly evolve over time for the better? And if they do, should we applaud their metamorphosis and welcome them back?

The easy answer -- as we are seeing with Paula Deen -- is to quickly label the person a racist for past insensitive remarks and cast her out to the fringes of society. But that's not the best answer for our nation.

Dean Obeidallah
Dean Obeidallah

I say this as a person who has been called racist slurs on numerous occasions. I'm of Arab heritage. I have an inbox full of e-mails from people calling me things like "sand n----" or telling me "Go back to where you are from." (Which, I should note, is New Jersey).

I'm also a Muslim, and I don't even want to describe here the litany of hate-filled insults that have been directed at our community and myself. The worst part is that these slurs don't come just from ignorant bigots who can easily be dismissed, but often by elected officials and even religious leaders.

But I will say this -- if a person who had called me a "sand n----" later expressed remorse and sincerely explained that they now understand it was hateful and wrong, I wouldn't respond with: "Too bad, you're a bigot for life."

Don't get me wrong, I wouldn't invite them over for dinner, either. However, I would cautiously applaud their change of heart and hope to see it evidenced by not just an apology, but by deeds as well.

Carter: Deen should be forgiven

And I would do this not just because they did the right thing by me, but also because they did the right thing by our society. They were evolving for the better and this in turn makes us a better nation.

Our country's history is filled with examples of people's views changing over time for the better -- the most recent example being on the issue of marriage equality. Polls now show support for same-sex marriage is at between 51 and 58%. But just 10 years ago, only slightly over 30% of Americans supported it.

Jimmy Carter's advice for Paula Deen
Can Paula Deen make a comeback?
Paula Deen's food empire crumbling
Jackson urges Deen to take 'ownership'

If 10 years ago supporters of marriage equality dismissed all those who opposed gay marriage -- or who had even had used derogatory terms about gays -- as bigots incapable of evolving, we never would have seen the new acceptance of marriage equality by mainstream America.

We also witnessed America evolve for the better regarding interracial marriage. In 1967, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down laws that barred interracial marriage in the famous case of Loving v. Virginia, 73% of Americans actually supported such laws. That wasn't a Red State-Blue State divide. The mainstream American view at that time was that blacks and whites should legally be prohibited from marrying each other.

When did a majority of Americans finally begin to accept interracial marriage? The late 1990s -- almost 30 years after the Supreme Court's landmark decision.

In tearful interview, Deen slams 'horrible lies'

Paula Deen recently admission that she used the hateful "N word" to describe a black man back inthe 1980's. But could Paula Deen -- as she has claimed -- have evolved over the past 30 years for the better? It's possible. Former President Jimmy Carter believes so, noting that Deen's programs in Savannah, Georgia, benefit "almost exclusively oppressed and poverty-stricken black people."

And as of the writing of this article, no one else has publicly come forward to say that Deen has used racially insensitive words in recent years. If she is still using racist and bigoted words, I would expect to see at least one other person substantiating such a claim.

On the other hand, Deen's assertion on the "Today" show earlier this week that she only used the "N word" one time in her life is so ridiculous that I believe it made her situation even worse -- especially since at her recent deposition she appeared to admit having using it more times in the past.

Can Paula Deen change? Of course she can, just as others have changed their views on issues of race and marriage equality. Clearly it will take more than a few tears on a morning show and a disjointed apology to prove that to us. But in time, if she and others like her do evolve, we should applaud and embrace them. As the Rev. Jesse Jackson stated this week about Deen: "She should be reclaimed rather than destroyed."

Certainly if someone is spouting racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic or Islamaphobic comments today, they deserve the punishment they receive -- be it losing their job of being cast from mainstream society to the fringes to wallow with the hate mongers.

Deen and Southern food: Critics say credit is past due

But let's not close the door on their redemption. If we do, our nation will be frozen in its progress forward on societal and racial issues. And that would truly be unforgivable.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dean Obeidallah.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:56 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
updated 4:15 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
updated 3:28 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
updated 11:35 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 1:29 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT