Skip to main content

We use Paula Deen to give ourselves a pass

By Gene Seymour, Special to CNN
updated 7:17 AM EDT, Tue July 2, 2013
In the wake of the recent deposition in which Paula Deen admitted to using racially charged language, many sponsors and partners have re-evaluated their relationship with the embattled chef. Deen's 15th cookbook, "Paula Deen's New Testament: 250 Favorite Recipes, All Lightened Up," was set to release in October 2013. The book shot to the top of Amazon's pre-order list, but has now been <a href='http://eatocracy.cnn.com/2013/06/28/paula-deens-upcoming-cookbook-cancelled/'>canceled by Ballantine Books</a>. In the wake of the recent deposition in which Paula Deen admitted to using racially charged language, many sponsors and partners have re-evaluated their relationship with the embattled chef. Deen's 15th cookbook, "Paula Deen's New Testament: 250 Favorite Recipes, All Lightened Up," was set to release in October 2013. The book shot to the top of Amazon's pre-order list, but has now been canceled by Ballantine Books.
HIDE CAPTION
Paula Deen's empire
Paula Deen's empire
Paula Deen's empire
Paula Deen's empire
Paula Deen's empire
Paula Deen's empire
Paula Deen's empire
Paula Deen's empire
Paula Deen's empire
Paula Deen's empire
Paula Deen's empire
Paula Deen's empire
Paula Deen's empire
Paula Deen's empire
Paula Deen's empire
Paula Deen's empire
Paula Deen's empire
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gene Seymour: I'm tired of people beating up on Deen and also of those excusing her
  • He says we fixate on her disastrous statements, apologies, attempts to right herself
  • He says we use her to feel superior, rather than face our unfinished business with racism
  • Seymour: We focus on celebrity gaffes, not incarceration rates, real forms of discrimination

Editor's note: Gene Seymour is a film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post.

(CNN) -- Are you tired of Paula Deen? I am. I'm tired of reading about her. I'm tired of talking about her. I'm tired of hearing other people talk about her. I'm tired of people looking for excuses to talk about her. I'm as tired of people who revel in beating her up as I am of people making excuses for her. To be brutally honest, I was tired of her even before she was called out in public for conduct and language detrimental to African-Americans.

Yet, like spectators at an over-extended Mixed Martial Arts bout, we seem perversely fixated on Deen's crashing, bruising struggle to stay upright while finding new ways to fall down. Last week, Wal-Mart, Home Depot and Target joined the Food Network and Novo Nordisk (the pharmaceutical company that makes the diabetes medication advertised by the "Queen of Southern Cuisine") in cutting their ties with Deen.

And, in what some believe to be the most grievous blow of all, Ballantine Books, the Random House subsidiary publishing her latest cookbook, "Paula Deen's New Testament," announced Friday that it was dropping that title from its fall release catalog.

Gene Seymour
Gene Seymour

The TV and marketing deals were one thing. But the cookbooks? They made up the foundation upon which Deen's empire was built. Judy Smith, the media consultant who inspired the creation of "Scandal's" Olivia Pope and has been hired by Deen to orchestrate her recovery, has her work cut out for her -- especially if, as seems likely, we're going to be forced against our collective will to witness what promises to be an excruciating restoration process.

Especially if that process is going to be anything resembling that much-hyped "apology" on NBC's "The Today Show" last week, which culminated with the single most disingenuous use of the verb "is" since Bill Clinton's more than a decade ago. Having squirmed my way through that 20-minute segment at least once, I found Deen to be far less contrite than others expected or inferred. Her cast-the-first-stone plea to the audience; her version of the "black-people-say-that-word-too" complaint about using the "N-word," her insistence that she wouldn't have fired herself for what she'd said "a world ago...with a gun to my head."

Watch: The N-word's history: Where did it come from?

Some of the comments resonated with regret -- tearful and at times poignant. But it sounded more like regret that she's being put through all this humiliation in the first place. This seemed to be a conversation not with Matt Lauer so much as with the people who were devoted to her in the first place. And indeed, with ongoing litigation by a former employee of Deen's restaurant figuring into the disclosure, no one tuning in that morning should have expected her to admit any wrongdoing on camera.

But why didn't he ask Deen about her apparent delight with the notion of preparing a wedding party with a plantation motif complete with an all-black staff of servers? An interviewer might at least have had the right to ask whether she understands that antebellum days mean different things to the collective memory of African-Americans than they do to more sentimental white Southerners.

Author: Use 3rd-grade logic with N-word
Paula Deen takes on her critics
Is Alec Baldwin getting a pass for rant?

Indeed, asking Deen point-blank, "Are you a racist?" was in so many ways the wrong question to ask. (Lauer might have been better off asking a locked basement door to open up.) If she'd been asked, instead, "What do you think racism is?" it might have bewildered, even antagonized her more. But it's a question that needed to be posed at some point -- and not just to Paula Deen.

For, as is frequently the case when a celebrity is caught making a bigoted or similarly inappropriate remark, the incident gets drummed up as one of those so-called "teachable moments" for an America still wrestling with the specter of race, even after it has elected (twice) its first black president.

What often happens instead is another dreary star-bashing ritual, an occasion for pillorying public figures caught in an embarrassing act with censure that makes the rest of us feel superior to the offending party. In a media culture ruled by tabloid thinking (if not necessarily by tabloids themselves), it's an exercise in moralizing as opposed to genuine moral examination.

Wouldn't it be nice if, for this one time, this kind of story really did cause the rest of us to re-examine and reflect upon our unfinished business regarding race and culture? And to ask ourselves what constitutes racism in our 21st century society? It is true that we no longer have racially separate drinking fountains, rest rooms and train compartments. But it is also true that a disproportionate number of young black people receive far harsher jail sentences (e.g. life with no possibility of parole) than their white counterparts convicted of similar crimes. Is that justice? Or is it a form of racism?

Consider "Central Park Five," the recent documentary by Ken and Sarah Burns, about the rush to judgment by police, prosecutors and the New York media against five minority youths convicted of the 1989 rape and assault of a white female jogger. When the verdicts were vacated in 2002 after someone already in prison confessed to the crime, it didn't get nearly the attention as, say, the verbal racial pratfalls of Don Imus, Michael Richards or even Paula Deen. The documentary's theatrical release last fall offered some opportunity for widespread soul searching about racial presumptions. But not much; not, anyway, as much as there should be.

It seems, in short, that America is now more inclined to view racism as a lapse in manners instead of a persistent, recurring presence in its soul, one of many unpleasant facts of life that we'd rather not confront directly, unless it allows us to indulge in schadenfreude (defined as pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others-- say, celebrities who misspeak).

No matter how the Paula Deen mess shakes itself out, it will likely be just another squalid real-life melodrama that keeps the rest of us from acknowledging one simple truth: Racism won't even begin to erode until people give themselves the time and space to consider who each of is as opposed to what each of us is.

Which, granted, is not as catchy as "I is what I is." Too bad.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gene Seymour.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 2:19 PM EDT, Fri October 31, 2014
As a woman whose parents had cancer, I have quite a few things to say about dying with dignity.
updated 9:04 AM EDT, Fri October 31, 2014
David Gergen says he'll have a special eye on a few particular races in Tuesday's midterms that may tell us about our long-term future.
updated 10:52 AM EDT, Fri October 31, 2014
What's behind the uptick in clown sightings? And why the fascination with them? It could be about the economy.
updated 9:01 AM EDT, Fri October 31, 2014
Midterm elections don't usually have the same excitement as presidential elections. That should change, writes Sally Kohn.
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Thu October 30, 2014
Mike Downey says the Giants and the Royals both lived through long title droughts. What teams are waiting for a win?
updated 2:32 PM EDT, Thu October 30, 2014
Mel Robbins says if a man wants to talk to a woman on the street, he should follow 3 basic rules.
updated 5:03 PM EDT, Wed October 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say more terrorism plots are disrupted by families than by NSA surveillance.
updated 5:25 PM EDT, Wed October 29, 2014
Time magazine has clearly kicked up a hornet's nest with its downright insulting cover headlined "Rotten Apples," says Donna Brazile.
updated 4:55 PM EDT, Wed October 29, 2014
Leroy Chiao says the failure of the launch is painful but won't stop the trend toward commercializing space.
updated 7:45 AM EDT, Wed October 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley: Though Jeb Bush has something to offer, another Bush-Clinton race would be a step backward.
updated 8:37 AM EDT, Tue October 28, 2014
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
updated 7:45 AM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
updated 3:04 PM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
updated 8:32 PM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT