Paula Deen's yet-to-be-released cookbook, Paula Deen's New Testament, has just topped Amazon's best-selling books list, beating out books from the likes of George R.R. Martin, Steven Spielberg, Khaled Hosseini, and Dan Brown. Could Paula Deen have the makings of the next great literary hero? Or are Paula Deen's supporters trying to send us a message?
Obviously, they are telling us, "We support Paula Deen." Literally: they've made it a Facebook page, which has reached almost 500,000 likes in less than a week. The annual Paula Deen Cruise is actually planning two trips for 2014, due to the outpouring of support. In fact, since allegations of creating a hostile work environment have surfaced against Paula Deen and her brother, Bubba Hiers, Paula Deen's fans have taken to social media to decry the Food Network, Walmart, and Target for severing ties with the southern cook, threatening to boycott them all. Even her less avid supporters, such as comedian Bill Maher, have come to her defense, asking, "Do we always have to make people go away … for one f*** up?"
Despite the irony of Maher's question, considering his sentiments towards Mel Gibson, many are asking the same thing. What we're seeing is not outrage over any potential discriminatory employment practices, but outrage over the very allegation to begin with. It has devolved into a simplistic conversation defending the use of the "n-word" in the name of freedom of speech. And it's highlighted something far more sinister: that we don't even know how to define racism in anything other than the abstract anymore.
The suit brought against Paula Deen claims that the plaintiff, Lisa T. Jackson, "endured a hostile work environment, replete with racial slurs." Since then, the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, a civil rights group, has said it has "found evidence of systemic racial discrimination and harassment" and that "a family member consistently referred to a black cook as 'my little monkey.'" These are very serious allegations, but, in what should have been a show of sympathy towards employees who felt disrespected and dehumanized, we've only seen outrage at the accusation of "racism."
Unfortunately, this is nothing new. As journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates notes: "The bar for racism has been raised so high that one need be a card-carrying member of the Nazi Party to qualify … But most racism — indeed, the worst racism — is quaint and banal. There's nothing sensationalistic about redlining or job discrimination. No archival newsreel can capture what it means to be viewed as a person who, minus the beneficence of well-meaning whites, simply can't compete."
So when supporters rally to Paula Deen's side, boldly defending the use of racial slurs in the name of freedom of speech and completely ignoring the fact that she might have engaged in some serious civil rights violations, they send a very loud message: The real victims are not her black employees who were disrespected and discriminated against, it's Paula Deen, the millionaire chef who was called out for her behavior.