Celebrity chef and Food Network star Paula Deen is a hot news item right now, and not for her sweet treats. The contents of a May 17 deposition, related to a March 2012 $1.2 million dollar lawsuit alleging harassment at her restaurant, have been leaked to the media, and they are not pretty. They paint Deen and her business partner and brother, Earl “Bubba” Hiers, as racist, sexist, and operators of a hostile and violent workplace. Some of the most damning information to come to light is the extent to which Deen herself reveals herself to be racist, rather than just an enabler of her brother’s thuggish behavior.
The underlying lawsuit was filed in early March 2012 by former restaurant manager Lisa Jackson, who was employed for five years at Uncle Bubba’s Seafood and Oyster House. The Savannah establishment is co-owned by Deen and her brother Earl “Bubba” Hiers, for whom it is named. Jackson’s complaint alleged that she suffered from racially and sexually motivated harassment and occasional violence at the hands of Hiers and that her civil rights were violated. The complaint also describes similar behavior towards other employees in the restaurant. All of this was allegedly known to Deen, who apparently chose to turn a blind eye. In fact, the lawsuit alleges she herself used racial slurs around the workplace.
Jackson claims that Hiers made unwanted sexual advances towards her and routinely watched pornography in the office she shared with him. He is also violent in the workplace, according to the suit. On one occasion, he violently shook a black kitchen worker; Deen later invited the man to her mansion to smooth things over but her brother remained active in the business and apparently was not punished for his actions. On another occasion, Jackson alleges that Hiers grabbed her face and screamed and spat at her. Other racist misconduct includes forcing black employees to use the back entrance and forbidding them from using the customer restroom, which white employees were allowed to use.
In the deposition Deen gave, she admitted to using the N-word on multiple occasions, saying “Yes, of course … I can’t determine what offends another person,” corroborating the lawsuit’s claims of her using racial slurs. And in what could be indicative of bad taste, at best, Deen also volunteered that she had the idea of having a wedding in which black men would be used to play the role of slaves.
The defendants have made the usual denials about the lawsuit’s claims, but the real damage will be in the court of public opinion. Born in Albany, Ga., in 1947, Deen started her food service career in 1989 with a venture called The Bag Lady, and built a multifaceted cooking empire that includes tv shows, restaurants, a magazine, and other ventures. Forbes estimates her annual earnings at $17 million dollars.