Paula Deen's racist comments that were brought to the public's attention last week elicited a wide array of reactions. Many Americans expressed shock and disapproval, condemning Deen for her actions. Others, on the other hand, were utterly unsurprised by the incident; the racist behavior was expected of the 66-year-old Food Network celebrity chef and queen of southern cooking.
Deen has occupied the tabloids since acknowledging she has used the N-word. The allegations against Deen began when a former restaurant manager, Lisa Jackson, filed a lawsuit against Deen and her brother, Earl “Bubba” Hiers, for sexual and racial harassment, according to CNN.
The details have only become more disturbing since the news broke late last week. In addition to using racial slurs, Deen has been accused of wanting black waiters to play the role of slaves at a wedding she was planning. As Jackson phrased it in the lawsuit, Deen wanted a "Southern plantation-style" wedding with "n*ggers" similar to the "Shirley Temple days."
In response to allegations that she has told racist Jokes, Deen said flippantly, “It’s just what they are — they’re jokes … most jokes are about Jewish people, rednecks, black folks … I can’t determine what offends another person,” according to Radar.
By now, however, most Americans are familiar with Deen's alleged behavior. What deserves a closer examination is the way that they have responded to the incident and the troubling truths Deen's outing reveals about modern-day racial attitudes.
On one hand, sponsors have shown Deen that her behavior will simply not be tolerated. The Food Network has taken measures to demonstrate their staunch disapproval of Deen's behavior. According to CNN, the network announced on Friday June 21 that it would not renew Deen's contract soon after Paul Campbell, the vice president of communications, said that "the company does not 'tolerate discriminatory behavior.'"
A Daily Show spoof titled "Fried and Prejudice," also expressed outrage. Poking fun at Deen's last scandal — when she announced to America that she had type 2 diabetes— Daily Show correspondents, John Oliver and Jessica Williams, discuss Deen's "type 2 racism."
On the other hand, however, some Americans were hardly shocked by the news. According to an article in the Huffington Post, one black woman, Darah Cubit, said "after all, she is an older white woman in one of the most notorious slave states in the country."
Of course, Cubit was not the only one to exhibit lack of surprise. But the attitude that Deen is simply a product of her era and environment was an attitude reveals one of the most disturbing aspects of the incident.
First of all, the comment sheds light on the fact that our country's history with racism and segregation is extremely ugly but also disturbingly recent and fresh in our national conscience. Secondly, many Americans hold different generations to different standards. But we cannot tacitly accept Deen's behavior because she comes from Georgia and she grew up during the era when legalized segregation characterized the South. We must hold Deen accountable for her actions; rather than comply with the mistakes of our nation's past and attribute Deen's downright racist comments to her upbringing, we must make a point of breaking with this shameful history.
The Huffington Post reported that Deen's comments elucidate "the part institutional racism still plays in our lives in America." This phrase strikes at the heart of the issue; racism is in many ways still ingrained in our society. While I hope and I believe that most Americans no longer judge character based on color, racist attitudes are certainly overlooked and even forgiven in some cases, especially when it comes to celebrities.
While Paula Deen's comments reveal a shameful stain on the American conscience and the many ways in which racism lives on, Americans can learn from this incident. First of all, we cannot sit back and accept racism when we see it, regardless of where it is coming from. Racism should be inexcusable. While everyone is influenced by their upbringing and environment, these factors are not unchangeable.
Despite an apology in which she has begged for forgiveness, Deen has lost her contract as well as many fans. It is unfortunate for Deen that she will suffer these immense consequences for what she claims to be a mistake. Nonetheless, the Food Network has done the important task of demonstrating to America that racism is inexcusable and that an individual who has publicly professed a racist past cannot be a national hero.