I have no idea if Paula Deen is typical of white Southern women of her generation, and I doubt others do, either. (If they do, I’d love to see the data.) But I do know that a lot of people are thinking this—whispering that Deen’s casual racism is just how those people talk—particularly as another white Southern woman of a certain age, author Anne Rice, has taken to Facebook to defend Deen. How can people believe such a simplistic generalization about Southerners? Perhaps because those people (people like me) have been too quiet—too “polite” is maybe a more accurate word—over the years. Well, to hell with that.
First, allow me to establish my Southern bona fides. I was born and raised in Georgia, just like Deen, and like her, I am white. My roots in the South go way back, just like hers—at least five or six generations for me, and I imagine something similar for Deen, since Southerners as a group tend to stay put unless we are driven to hit the road by extreme conditions. Deen is eight years older than I am, but we’re close enough in age for me to say we are roughly of the same generation.
But I’ll be damned if I can figure out how anybody can listen to Deen’s comments without cringing. I say this not because of my delicate, politically correct sensibilities or because I am tortured by liberal guilt. I say it because I grew up in the South during the civil rights era and because I was paying attention.
Don’t get me wrong; I know exactly where Deen is coming from. The vast majority of white Southerners of her—our—generation were taught a version of regional history that was some variation of the old “lost cause” narrative, the most important elements of which were that a) the South had fought the Civil War to defend the constitutional principle of states’ rights (the aforementioned “lost cause”) and b) that except for a few bad apples, antebellum slavery had been a fairly benign institution in which many white slave owners considered their “darkies” as extended family. Generations of Southerners have been fed this folderol, but my generation had the unique opportunity to compare it with events playing out before our eyes—and believe me, there was no possible way to reconcile one with the other. If all those black people had been like family, then why was that particular branch of the family so poor, and why weren’t they ever invited over for Thanksgiving? If slavery had been such a benign institution, why were so many black people claiming to be suffering from its long-term effects a century later? If the N-word wasn’t really a racial slur, why were we told that “nice people” never used it except maybe when there were no black people within earshot?
We reacted to these contradictions in one of three ways. You could simply ignore this massive cognitive dissonance and go on with your life. You could get obsessed with the whole problem and become a Southern novelist or a Civil War re-enactor or go into academia—or maybe, like me, torture yourself by writing a book trying to explain the whole conundrum. Or you could spend your life trying to figure out ways that the history you’d been taught might be mostly true, sort of—all the while adjusting your habits and expressions to be in sync with the emerging social consensus. Hey, my church has some very nice black members! One of my best friends at work is black! I don’t judge people by the color of their skin; we are all God’s children.
In some ways the third option was the easiest, since you didn’t have to question too much of what you’d been told and you could congratulate yourself on being able to change with the times. And this, it seems, is the path Deen took.
I base this conclusion not on the fact that she has admitted to using the N-word in private. (I thought she was refreshingly honest about that, and yes, as a kid, I used it, too.) I base it on other things she said, both in the legal deposition that sparked this whole controversy and in a videotaped interview she did with the New York Times in front of an audience in the fall of 2012. The South, she says in the interview, “is almost less prejudiced, because black folks played such an integral part in our lives. They were like our family.” Well, yes—a lot of them were literally family, as more than one amateur Internet genealogist has discovered in recent years. But “like family”? Not unless those 19th-century slave owners also harbored paternal feelings for their livestock.
The kicker in the video comes when Deen produces visual proof of her lack of racial prejudice: a real live African-American assistant named Hollis Johnson, who she assures the audience she loves “like a son” and “would trust with my life.” The aforementioned Johnson—who I sure hope is getting paid big bucks—is asked to stand up so the audience can see him, since the stage background is also black. “We can’t see you against that black board!” Deen chortles. Oh, Lawdy.
Another white Southern woman of my generation, a co-worker of mine at the Washington Post years ago, was talking to me once about the strain of visiting her extended family in South Carolina over the Christmas holidays. “What do you do,” she asked me, “when the stone-cold racist at the dinner table is a person you love and are related to?” Nothing, I told her, and in many ways I still believe that; as St. Paul advised the Philippians, we must each “work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling,” and I’m still working on my own.
Yet as a group, white Southerners of my generation have been way too easy on the ones of our cohort who don’t seem to get that you cannot magically erase the wrongs of history by cheerfully asserting, as Deen did, that “color ain’t got nothin’ to do with it.” Race has everything to do with what it means, and has meant, to be an American. Race is the central conundrum of the American democratic experiment, and the American South has wrestled with that problem more than any other region. That is both its tragedy and its amazing strength, and it’s why so many white Southerners of my generation cling to our regional identity. But it’s time we stopped being so dern polite. Paula Deen and those like her deserve more than a shrug.