If you’re a person with an Internet connection – and chances are good that you are, since you found your way here! – then you’ve probably noticed that Paula Deen has been making the headlines quite a bit lately, and it’s not all fun and fried food.
Last month, Deen’s deposition in the lawsuit brought against her and her brother by former employee Lisa Jackson was made public. Jackson alleged that Deen contributed to a hostile work environment stemming from repeated incidents of racism and harassment. In her deposition, Deen admits to using “the n-word” in conversation with members of her family, and while Jackson has stated that the use of this racial slur isn’t a central concern of her lawsuit, this revelation has further fueled the controversy.
As story after story regaled us with tales of Deen’s aestheticization of the plantation era and the discriminatory business practices suffered by her employees, we watched her empire crumble like a too-dry coffee cake. The controversy swirling around Deen had all the makings of the perfect celebrity disaster: horrifically absurd allegations of blatant bigotry, Deen’s erratic, emotional attempts to apologize, and a slew of business associates dropping Deen like a hot potato. As many have observed, it seems like Deen is gearing up for the familiar celebrity comeback we’ve come to love to hate.
I followed the controversy as it broke, and I was shocked at the descriptions of Deen’s nostalgia for the aesthetics of the plantation era. I was disgusted when another former employee reported that Deen had demanded that employees from her restaurants work parties at her own home, offering only beer as compensation for their time. It seemed clear that the discriminatory practices of Deen and her brother ought to be condemned in the news and in the courtroom.
As I read on, I started to notice a startling trend in the coverage of the Deen controversy, and in the public comments left on the articles. Genuine outrage soon gave way to snark, and the topic of conversation shifted from investigating the appalling, bigoted practices of a powerful businesswoman to something else entirely.
In rightfully indicting Deen for her behavior, many have seemed eager to issue a broader pronouncement about the American South. Deen’s position as a southern white woman of a particular age and social stratum was continually invoked. This didn’t seem to excuse Deen, thankfully, but was instead offered up as a salve for those weary in the face of such hateful behavior. She’s a white lady from the South, what else can we expect of her? Of the people like her?
This kind of tone began to infect all Paula Deen coverage. In the midst of their extensive coverage of the Paula Deen controversy, Jezebel – an arm of the larger Gawker Media enterprise which purports to approach women’s issues, from the trivial to the significant, from a feminist slant – published an article penned by Tracy Moore which promised “A Complete Guide to All the Kinds of Racist Southerners.” As I read that headline, something felt very, very wrong.
For the first eighteen years of my life, I was a full-time Southerner. Until I moved to New England for college, I’d never lived anywhere but eastern North Carolina. I’m a white Southerner who grew up in a socioeconomically advantaged household, and so I speak from a very particular, very privileged position. I do know firsthand that it’s hard to be different in the South. After all, I chose to leave as soon as I could, partially to escape the very worst of the South: the suffocating forces of racism, classism, entrenched poverty, misogyny, and homophobia.
When I left, I found that many people believed the South to be contaminated, as if discrimination and bigotry and violence ran in the water. In their eyes, the South was the American repository of racism. Gay people didn’t exist in the South. Everyone from the South was backwards, slow, and conservative. Southerners were all the same, and if you were different, then you must have escaped just in time.
As I read Moore’s article, which outlines different types of “Racist Southerners,” I realized just what had made me so uncomfortable in the discourse surrounding Paula Deen. Instead of condemning Deen for her behavior, for her role in perpetuating bigotry in her own business, people used each new headline to prove that racism is a Southern problem.
In advancing a typology of “Racist Southerners,” Moore rendered racism an exclusively Southern phenomenon – and perpetuated the typecasting of “southern” as synonymous with “racist,” completing erasing the diversity of identity and ideology found in the South. While the kinds of “Racist Southerners” Moore identifies in her Jezebel article are certainly racists, they can definitely be found outside of the South: “dumb white supremacists,” “the good ol’ boy,” “the political racist,” “the privately well-intentioned racist,” “the good old-fashioned racist,” and “the unintentional racist” reside in all fifty states.
We can’t untangle the history of the South from the racism of the present day. That history has contributed not only to the perpetuation of racism as a cultural inheritance, but also to systematic inequalities like entrenched poverty, limited resources for rural communities, and inadequate public education. These inequities plague the South, further dividing this region from the rest of the United States. The more different the South seems, the more tainted by its history, the easier it is to see racism as a problem “down there,” but never a problem in your own community. The historical legacy of the South and its present reality are complicated things, and when we write off the South as a lost cause, we not only circumscribe racism as a Southern problem, but we also abandon the real-life people who make their home there.
But racism is not just a Southern problem.
Racism is an institutionalized force in the United States, and it is everywhere. When we use figures like Paula Deen to convince ourselves that racism belongs only in the Southern backwaters, we do little to challenge intersecting systems of oppression and discrimination. And while it might be easier to pretend that racism is a relic of the Old South, and that racists can only be found below the Mason Dixon Line, that’s a dangerous delusion.