There was this Thanksgiving dinner once, at my aunt’s house in Houston. That morning we’d read an op-ed in the local paper about a school that still used corporal punishment. A white teacher had paddled a black student. People were up in arms about the obvious racial overtones, and my grandmother, my sweet little 70-year-old Nanny, offered that she, too, didn’t think the white teacher should have paddled that black student, because she “wouldn’t want no niggers beatin’ on her kids, neither.” This occasioned lots of eye-rolling from the grandchildren and some gentle rebukes from our parents. Then someone passed the gravy.
As a typical Southern white family, we didn’t talk much about race. But whenever the older generation hauled it indelicately to the surface, it was an opportunity for us grandkids to see the ugliness our country would rather forget. For our parents it was a teachable moment, a chance to show us just how ugly prejudice is. In this way it was useful, instructive even, to have an old racist grandma at the dinner table.
Which brings us to Paula Deen. By now Deen’s crimes are well known. Among other offenses, she’s confessed to saying she wanted “a bunch of little niggers” to dress up in antebellum finery for an Old South-style wedding feast she was throwing. As punishment, she has been stripped of her Food Network show and her endorsement deal with Smithfield Ham. In other words, polite society has tried to sweep her ugliness under the carpet where we can safely ignore it.
That’s exactly the wrong thing to do. Whether it’s Ross Perot’s “you people” or Don Imus’ “nappy-headed hos,” our reaction is always to ostracize the offender. But as perverse as it may seem, you cannot have a National Conversation About Race and not invite racists to be a part of that conversation. Paula Deen represents a sizable constituency in this discussion. Witness the support for her among Southern whites, which has been unapologetic and loud. The morning after the Food Network dumped her, the line outside her Georgia restaurant snaked around the block. The “We Support Paula Deen” Facebook page has 376,558 likes counting. Deen has the kind of mind that can look back on America’s Holocaust and see nothing but cotillions and hoop skirts. There’s little use in pretending that mentality doesn’t exist. All we do is push it back into the shadows where it waits to spill out again.
Paula Deen is America’s racist grandma, and we should treat her as such. Racist Grandma may be racist, but she’s also your grandma. You can’t just disown her.
And, contrary to what some might think, having a racist grandma isn’t entirely bad. No doubt there are many white families where racism is passed down generation to generation like some cancerous gene. But for others, seeing that gene and knowing you’re predisposed to it is a warning sign, a nagging reminder to take preventive measures for yourself. I say let’s push racist Grandma back to center stage and let her keep talking.
The counterargument to keeping Deen on the air is that someone with her repugnant views shouldn’t be rewarded with a lucrative television contract, and that’s fair as far as it goes. But Paula Deen is already a millionaire. She will remain a millionaire whether her TV show exists or not. And had the Food Network kept her on, Deen would hardly be the only racist in America with a decent job. Deen has a platform. That has value. It can be used for good or ill, but eliminating that platform helps no one. Should she be punished for her actions? Of course. Our racist grandmas may get a pass, but as a public figure, Deen has responsibilities. Which is precisely why she should be forced to remain on television.
Because here’s the thing about white people: They hate dealing with race—are incapable of dealing with it, in large part. Have you ever seen a white CEO stand in front of a black audience and tell them how much he “cares about diversity”? I have. It’s excruciating. What better penance could there be than to have Deen wake up on Monday morning and stand in front of a camera and open her mouth and do her job? Because she’s become far more than just a TV chef. She has set herself up as a voice for all that is good about the South. And despite its sins, one thing the South can rightly be proud of is its food. Southern food is a big bucket of deep-fried awesome. Who doesn’t crave a heaping helping of biscuits and gravy or shrimp and grits? Southern food also perfectly captures the complexities and contradictions of how race is lived in that part of the country. When you find moments of genuine interracial community in the South, it’s usually over a plate of red beans and rice or a huge slab of ribs, people sharing favorite recipes or swapping stories about whose grandfather liked to cook this or that; food may be the thing poor Southern whites and poor Southern blacks have most in common. But Southern cuisine also gives fuel to some of our worst racial stereotypes. Fried chicken and watermelon and all the rest of it. And the politics of food, of who serves what to whom, the very thing that got Deen in trouble with her antebellum dinner party, is ever present. Whether it’s whites refusing to serve blacks at the lunch counter or blacks in dinner jackets serving the soup course to whites, you could write a whole book on the power dynamics of putting a plate on a table below the Mason-Dixon Line.
Food and race and the South—it’s a minefield. And I would love to see Paula Deen walk through it on national television. She knows exactly where she screwed up and why, and to have to face that with the whole country watching? Just imagine it: with no pause for “reflection,” with the eyes of a multiracial nation upon her and “the N-word” like a yoke around her neck, Paula Deen standing in front of a big Sunday spread of buttermilk fried chicken, barbecue brisket, collard greens, corn bread, fried okra, pigs’ feet, and sweet potato pie. Let her stand there and explain where all that good food came from and how her mama’s housekeeper used to make the best green bean casserole and see if she can learn how to do it without putting her racist foot in her mouth. Then, when she screws up, make her go back and do it again. That would be a punishment that fits the crime. It would make her a better person. It would make our National Conversation About Race a conversation worth having. And it would also make fantastic television.