Racism, Accountability, Paula Deen

I’m interrupting our regularly scheduled programming (my promised entries on Eldercare) because I need to get random here.

I don’t know if she’s a racist. I haven’t talked to her in years. Okay, I’ve never met her. All that cooking and never once has she invited me over.

If she's a racist, there’s no law against it. Moral law, yes. Spiritual law, certainly. But no legal-type law.

If she created a hostile work environment and discriminated against employees, the courts will suss that out and more power to the woman who brought it to the attention of the law.

Not to mention karma. When karma’s involved, you know how that one goes...

But truly, we don’t know anything yet other than Paula Deen’s admission that she used the n-word.

I hate that. And I don’t buy that it was only once because she was robbed by a black man. Though if someone put a gun to my head, goodness knows what I’d say. Or do. Other than clean my britches and hide for about ten years.

There is such a thing as institutionalized racism and we don’t always know when we’re perpetrators. We don’t know what we don’t know. I can’t speak to the covert ways that sections of the human race are demeaned because I don’t walk in their shoes and I can’t always see it. (Not even speaking to the appalling overt behavior I've seen that no one should have to experience.)

When I was very young I was married for all of about 15 minutes. With the last name of Rosenthal, in 15 minutes I learned plenty. About things that had been invisible to me.

I know ugly things are said and said by people who sometimes don’t even know they’re offensive.

“I’m gonna Jew that guy down and see if I can get a better deal.”

“You gypped me.”

Hell, way back when I lived in Texas a restaurant menu showed three salad dressing options. Thousand Island. Blue cheese. And Wop. I assume that’s Italian?

A few years ago I was at a BBQ joint with my parents. In front of us in line was a mixed race couple. My mother said under her breath, “I just hate that.”

I knew my mother. I knew exactly what she was referring to. I feigned ignorance.

“What, Mom? What are you talking about?”

“Black men and white women.” Right after which she attempted to disown her opinion.

“Oh, I know, it may not be right, but that’s just what I think and I can’t help it.”

Interesting, I thought. Bestie’s married to a black guy. Mom loved him.

“Mom, is that what you think every time you see Bestie and Billy?”

“No,” she answered. “I don’t think that at all. They’re different.”

I let the moment breathe. Paused. “Well, Mom, I gotta think you can help it if you don’t think it when you’re with Bestie and Billy.”

She didn’t like that. Nope. Not one bit.

And what’s different about Bestie and Billy? We all know. She knew Billy and trusted him. He isn’t part of a nameless mass of humanity of a different color that’s suspect until proven different.

I come from a bunch of Italians (who discriminated against each other because some were northern Italian and some were bas-Italia, low Italian, otherwise known as Sicilian and very dark) and Russian Jews. Shaken not stirred, vigorously at that, if you know those folks.

But I have an advantage. My predecessors paid my dues. I have homogenized looks and a last name to match. My hair is bleached blonde. Good luck figuring out my ancestry. My roots don’t show (well, sometimes, but then I go to the hairdresser) and for awhile, I didn’t even know what they were.

In third grade my friend said to me, “See that new girl. She’s Jewish.” 

Are you kidding me? Sidra Silberman. Hell, yes, she's Jewish. But at that time I’d never even heard the word.

“What’s Jewish?”

She whispered, “They don’t believe in Jesus.”

Seriously? People who don’t believe in Jesus? I went to catechism on Saturday mornings. My parents made a choice between the two religions they came from. I was raised Catholic. I didn’t know my paternal grandmother was Jewish.

I walked up to Sidra. “You don’t believe in Jesus? Why?” I asked astounded.

Can you imagine? I grimace at the thought, even though I was only nine. I'm really sorry, Sidra. 

Clannish. Humans are clannish. We haven’t been socialized all that long and sometimes I’m not so sure we’re socialized at all. Outsiders are – well, outsiders. Humans tend to hang with their own kind. And there's safety in numbers, after all.

Been to the Castro in San Francisco? They have their own flag for land's sakes. 

None of this is to say that any of this discrimination stuff is okay. It’s not okay. It’s reprehensible. The marginalizing, keeping down, holding down, demeaning of any individual or group. It’s just plain wrong.

But there's a lot about the Deen affair left to come to light. In this situation, quite literally, the jury isn’t out – the jury doesn’t even have the case yet. 

I'm not known to quote Al Sharpton but (paraphrasing) he said something about not being much worried about what she said years ago but plenty interested if it's still going on today. Me, too,and it remains to be heard.

Thank you, Reverend.

Paula Deen's affiliates are cancelling contracts, non-renewing, and running for cover. As though their association was an accident. They just bumped into each other mistakenly. And the media are all over the deal like a wet sweat.

But this is what I absolutely do know. There’s something called accountability. It has a few components. 1) Owning your stuff. Good and bad. 2) Accepting the consequences. 3) Cleaning up any mess; paying the fine; making amends. 4) Making a plan for improvement. 5) Improving.

Rinse. Repeat. Till trust is reestablished.

But who in their right mind will ever do the thing we all say we want, take responsibility and own up, if when we do the world lands on us, judges us, kicks us out before fair hearing? If our message is owning up and cleaning up mean nothing. 

There are some distinctions we need to make in this and other cases. Have those accountability benchmarks been met? With my mom, “I can’t help it,” - not so much. Mel Gibson – improvement? I don’t think so. More like taking his show underground. Anthony Weiner, we’ll see, (but I really don’t wanna see anymore).

Then there’s our role. Have we examined our criteria for forgiveness? Is it reasonable? Which are our one strike and you’re out principles, and which transgressions do we let others earn their way back from? Are our standards rational? Do we hold ourselves to the same ones? Would we be okay if others held us to them?            

Do we know the difference between forgiveness and pardon? Nixon was pardoned and to this day he hasn’t been forgiven. Because pardon doesn’t help produce ownership. It says the opposite. It makes the sin like it didn’t happen.

If Paula Deen did bad, she shouldn’t get a bye. No pardon. Not because she’s 66, raised in the South, is famous, a kindly grandma-type on television, or cried for Matt Lauer. She should be accountable.

But how can she, or any of us enact a plan for improvement and seek forgiveness if we’re shunned and humiliated, and left no place to do that?

Make no mistake – her professional associates aren’t severing ties on moral grounds. It's about money. They’re getting rid of her before their sponsors, clients or customers get rid of them. No report of one saying more than, “We’re weighing our options.”

How about, “There will be no decision until all the facts are in. Because that’s the diligence with which we make our product and we believe that’s what you value about us.” Or, "She's been an excellent partner to us and we believe everyone should have a fair hearing."  

Nope. They think we’re reactive, irrational, and unforgiving. Really, I think they think we don’t think.

Again I say, there’s no excuse for racist behavior. I pray I haven’t unknowingly been an
example of Jane Elliott’s “Blue Eyed 
Experiment” but that’s probably too much to hope. Instead I’ll ask for forgiveness and the opportunity to make things right if I’ve caused a hurtful impact I didn’t intend. I would wish that for anyone.

While the court sorts out what Deen did and didn’t do, while she explains and dusts herself off, I believe we need to hold ourselves to a standard, too. We have a role in this, in the great world of accountability. Let’s play it well.


  1. Ah yes! Our parents. It was just a part of them. They never thought they were racist. They just believed what they thought about other people, Jews, Blacks, Asian (my mom would say Oriental)was just the truth. Blacks were afraid of water. Jews would take you for every dollar. I grew up with this. It was just normal conversation.
    But this is where I have to question Ms. Deen. I grew up in this type of environment and I know that what my parents spoke about "others not like us" just wasn't true. Blacks didn't swim because in those days most of them were poor and didn't have swimming pools. Jews...well some of them are taught to not be wasteful. But aren't Christians?

    I learned all this....on my own.
    Do I still think some things I wouldn't admit? Sure, get me behind the wheel during rush hour traffic. I get plently racist.
    But you are right on. It starts with me, with "us".

    I think it's a shame the way she is being crucified. She screwed up (I guess?). And the lucky thing for me is that no one pays me to sponsor their products...and if they did...they better not drive with me!!!

  2. Interesting point you make. Yes, I too saw the phenomenon called, "Because I think it, it's real," without apparent awareness that the thought may just be biochemical but hanging on to it and massaging it, that's choice. Perhaps that signals how fortunate we've been to have had education, time and training to evaluate this stuff.

    I'm thinking you're right. It appears at the very least, she screwed up. If she called my peeps a pejorative term, I'd be pissed. No doubt. But this landslide of bad will, the piling on, and public whipping, is ugly.

    Thanks for popping by to visit and taking time comment!


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