PREFACE: For the last few days, the events of Paula Deen’s life have become a national debate. A debate about language and behavior. A debate about racism.
Now, I’m not really a big fan of Ms. Deen’s. Although I’m a life-long Southerner, her drawl is a bit much for me to take in large doses. And most of my cooking follows a healthier path, so I don’t seek out many of her recipes or watch her shows. But I know who she is, and the level of her popularity.
And I’m not here to make excuses for her or her behavior, or to discuss it in great deal. Some of the incidents in the news are decades old, some current. You can Google it yourself if you’d like to find out the details. But if you’ve read this far you know the gist: she has acknowledged that she used the N-word in the past, and that she had a concept of a Plantation-style wedding with African-American men as servers a few years ago. She has been labeled a racist for these actions.
Before I go any further, I’d like to set a few ground rules for this discussion:
1) I am about to bare a few things from deep in my soul. Some are painful. Be respectful.
2) Some of you will judge me. So be it. But if you wish to disagree, do so respectfully.
I was born and raised in the South. My husband and I lived outside of Louisiana for the first four years we were married, and other than that time, south Louisiana has always been my home.
I was born in 1963, during the peak of the Civil Rights Movement in America. The culture that existed then seems unfathomable by today’s standards. While I have no personal recollections of segregated schools or drinking fountains, their stories were part of my childhood. My mother did an excellent job of instilling in us values of tolerance, love, and respect for all people. But she did so in the midst of a culture that was not yet ready to change, so her words were not the only messages I received.
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In the South where I grew up, the N-word was used. By some, it was used indiscriminately. By others, its use was rationalized by context. But I heard it often.
I heard it from authority figures, public officials, friends of my parents, and even occasionally from my parents. Although in later life they understood the impact and forbade the word in our home, there was a time when it was part of the vernacular.
For anyone who grew up in the South during this time to say otherwise would be a lie.
So what I’m about to say is hard. Because it is painful for me, and painful for others.
I’ve used the N-word.
It was so long ago I can barely even conjure up a sentence where I might have said it. And I probably looked around to make sure no one who “might take offense” was within earshot. I would liken its use then (at least in my world) to the use of the word “gay” now. At the time it seemed harmless enough.
Dear God, I was wrong.
The journey to teach me how wrong would take many years, and take me out of my comfortable space. It would take me to a place filled with people from all across the world.
When we got married, my Mr. Wonderful was then Lt. Wonderful, an officer in the U.S. Army. The day after our wedding we left for his next duty station. It was the first time either of us had left Louisiana for anything other than recreational travel.
If you’ve ever lived in a military town (especially prior to the 1990s), you know that the military was decades ahead of the general population of the U.S. when it came to diversity. Interracial and multicultural marriages were commonplace. And the bonds in a military community are strong. So we made friendships that weren’t like the ones we left behind in Louisiana.
There was one family with whom we grew extremely close while we lived there, an interracial family with two children at the time. The husbands worked together, and we often saw each other socially. I would describe them as the “best friends” we had there.
It was their son (who was about five years old at the time) that shifted my paradigm. I was at their house one day when he asked me a question that would change my life.
“If you and Mr. Wonderful have a baby, will it be brown or white?”
I sat quietly for a moment to think about this answer. Since his mom looked a lot like me, it made sense to him that I could have a baby that looked like him.
This perfect child did not understand the concept of race. He did not see that things were a certain way BECAUSE of one’s race, or IN SPITE OF one’s race. He saw things WITHOUT REGARD FOR race.
I finally answered, explaining that since his mother was white and his father was brown that their children could be either. But since both of us were white, that our babies would be white. He seemed satisfied with the answer.
But I was changed forever.
Shortly after that experience, I was gathered in the lunch room at work. The conversation rambled over a few subjects. And I dropped the word. I used it as an adjective, to describe something that was beneath me. I remember being a little tentative, since I hadn’t known these people very long. As it slipped out of my mouth I looked at the next table, at the expressionless face of the bi-racial woman enjoying her lunch. And I was ashamed.
I didn’t have the courage to get up and apologize. I just sat there, wanting the earth to open up and swallow me so I didn’t have to face myself.
Later that day, she strolled by my desk as she usually did to chat about something. I don’t remember what we talked about. All I wanted was her forgiveness. But it was never spoken of between us, and I don’t really know why. In hindsight there are a couple of possibilities. Perhaps she didn’t hear me. Perhaps she did, but chose to take the high road and say nothing to me. Perhaps she was so desensitized by it that it rolled right off. I’ll never know. I do know she gave me a gift that day. Through her grace, I was changed.
And since that day, the N-word is unequivocally forbidden in my world. If it’s spoken in my presence, my objection is immediately noted. I do not tolerate it in music. I don’t believe it’s appropriate in any setting.
I made a decision to break from this shameful part of our history and my past.
I made a decision not to sit passively while this particular manifestation of racism is displayed.
I have raised my children in a home where this shameful part of our culture is not tolerated.
And that must be the lesson of the Paula Deen scandal. People, there’s still much work to be done. I was a perfect example of socialized racism. But I changed.
I am grateful to the people in my life (like the father of that little boy) who engaged in meaningful dialogue about race with me. I am grateful for those I now call “friends,” who in another time or place in my life might not have been. I am grateful I changed.
But somewhere out there are people who were present when those words came out of my mouth many years ago. Nothing I can say or do now can change that. All that is left for me is to seek absolution.
I only hope I can be judged by the content of my character now. Not the words that came out of my mouth 35 years ago.
I welcome your thoughts on this subject.But remember the rule: BE RESPECTFUL.