Seeking Absolution


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.

Here goes.

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.

Image source: media.wcu.edu

Image source: media.wcu.edu

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.

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34 Comments

Filed under The Lucky Mom

34 responses to “Seeking Absolution

  1. Hi, Lisha! I nominated you for the Very Inpsiring Blogger Award. Visit my last post “Inspiring Minds Want to Know” to pick it up and read the instructions. Love ya! XOXO-Kasey

  2. Charleenemorgan

    Very well said Lisha. We have all said it, but I haven’t in a very long time. It is time for the public to leave Paula alone. What is said that long ago can’t be undone. Prayers for her and family.

  3. life is a journey and it’s as long as it is short. we all make mistakes, as long as we just keep learning and growing and understanding. this was a brave and honest post.

  4. A beautiful post. If Deen had shown a mere fraction of the humility and grace displayed in this post, she’d be fine. Instead, she “is what she is” and wants to put the onus on whoever is without sin to cast a stone at her. The fact is that the word was used to degrade — to strip the identity and value from — an entire race of people, and it’s not as though she’s displayed any real remorse for its use. I don’t feel bad for what is happening to her, but I am very thankful for this blog entry. Have a good day.

    • ikaisha, your kind words mean a great deal to me. I’ve learned that we must all deal with our own sins, without making them relative to the sins of others.

      Thank you for stopping by. I hope to see you around again. :-)

  5. What an awesome post! As a far-northerner who grew up on the opposite end of the mighty Mississippi in the early 70s in a small town with only one non-white family, I never heard the n-word used. So this was very enlightening for me to read. We have plenty of things up here that we need absolution from – you are definitely forgiven. I say things quite often that I realize too late are offensive. Just this afternoon I was reminding myself to think very carefully before I say anything at the BBQ our family was going to. And I don’t have any cultural biases that cause it – just my running mouth! I am so glad you have changed, and it is encouraging to me that I can grow and change too!

    • Hi, Heather! Thanks for the kind words. To say that I’m big on forgiveness would be an understatement. Because no matter how big or small our transgressions are, transcending them should be our goal.

  6. I appreciate your story and you tell it well. Too bad Paula Deen didn’t have the same epiphany a long time ago. Attitudes like Paula Deen’s don’t fly well with me, the mom in a very multicultural family. Not sad about her departure from the airwaves.

  7. Great, honest post, Lisha. I agree with what others have said, that I admire the depth of your self-reflection and compassion, and your ability to change something you didn’t like about yourself–because you could. So many people just go with “well, that’s just the way I am” or “that’s how I was raise” or “that’s all I’ve known”, and for them, that’s the long and short of it-no change necessary. We ALL have the ability to do what’s right in a wrong world, it simply takes courage. I think you are an amazing example! XOXO-Kasey

  8. I am in the Deep South — Alabama. I was born and raised here and there are many things about my Southern Heritage that I am proud of. Racism is not one of them. I am the generation after you, born in the 70’s and the N-word was common in the rural South even in my lifetime. However, I was blessed and fortunate to have been born in a military town. And even more blessed to have attended a multicultural church with my family and attend the high school designated for the military base where I made friends of all kinds. Race was a non-issue for me and I have always found the N-word highly offensive thanks to how I was raised. That being said, I know many who were raised before me, differently than me, when multiculturalism was not avoided, it just simply wasn’t around. Just as I as taught that there is no difference and given examples time and time again of how that was true, they were taught that they were somehow better.
    Everyone who rushes to judgement of Paula Deen seems to assume that she was raised where they were, when they were, where they were — she wasn’t. I am not condoning her behavior (I, like you, find her a bit much to take), but I do realize that her use of that word does not mean the same thing to her as it does to the rest of the world. That doesn’t change how it effects others, just that it doesn’t carry the weight for her as it does for everyone else. Her attitude, at least to me, demonstrates this. she has said that it was a long time ago, that it was taken out of context, that she used it to describe a criminal, or that she was just repeating conversations from among her staff. Everything she has said was to make “us” see the use of the word as she saw it — inconsequential and unimportant. She believes that she has been targeted because someone wanted what she worked so hard to earn. Perhaps. But she gave them the ammunition that they needed to get it. As for the loss of her contracts and endorsements, that’s just business y’all. Her actions have consequences and for someone like her, the price she will pay will be steep.

    • I understand exactly how she used it, because I used to use it in exactly the same way. As a condescending term to describe something I was better than. I’ve spent the better part of my adult life correcting that behavior, in my actions and in my words. All from a place so deep in the South I can smell the Gulf of Mexico from my yard when the wind is from the south.

      In reality, the impetus for this probably was a disgruntled employee. But she gave them everything they needed to go after her. The responsibility for her actions falls on her shoulders. And, yes, that’s business, y’all.

      • I hope I didn’t give the impression that I in any way condomed her behavior (because I don’t) I find it highly offensive. I was just trying to point out that her attitudes towards that word were based on a different time.
        To me, the way that she has handled this whole thing is just as offensive if not more so. As you so bravely pointed out in your post, people grow, mature, & change. The fact that Ms. Deen’s apologies thus far have been in the vein of “I’m sorry if you’re offended” more than “I deeply regret my past attitudes & behavior but they are my past” or something more along those lines. Perhaps this experience will be her epiphany.

  9. so i’m in tears. literally. here’s the thing. i’m 40. I grew up in a south suburb of Chicago where only white people would dare to ever step foot in. I used the N-word. more than once as a sh*t of a kid. my parents used the word. racism very much surrounded me growing up. ready for the silver lining?? I married a black man. crazy eh? I mean. it’s so crazy to me considering where I came from. the result of our marriage is the most gorgeous, sweet, loving little girl this world will ever lay their eyes upon. truth.

    • Christina, hatred is a learned behavior. Love is genuine. I’m so happy the content of your heart was stronger than the messages you were taught by others. Your daughter is a lucky girl. :-)

      EDIT: I just hopped over to your blog. She is, indeed, insanely cute!

  10. There’s so much here, I won’t even try to comment on all of it. Mostly, your choice to disclose your past self and to talk about the ways it changed you feels authentic to me, because you have clearly put life to your words. By living in the military, you were exposed to diversity, and you carried that into your personal life. I would like very much to know if Paula Deen could say the same. Who are her friends? Who are her employees? I would be disgusted to hear her use the “I can’t be racist, I have black friends everywhere” argument, but I would like to see her not just say how sorry she is for the person she was, but indicate that she’s not just sorry it cropped up now.

    My husband and I actually had a great discussion about this very topic this morning over breakfast. I can’t find anywhere to show how long ago “a long time” is for her. If she means the 60’s and 70’s, there are cultural implications of the kind you note. It wouldn’t mean she was right by any means, but it would suggest that she could have recognized the wrong and changed on her own. But we’re living in 2013. Technically, 1993 was 20 years ago, even though I swear it only happened yesterday. What if her “long time ago” is then? That would make a difference to my opinion.

    There’s also the American love of skewering celebrities. She’ll be old news in a couple of months, just like Lance Armstrong before her.

    • “If she means the 60′s and 70′s, there are cultural implications of the kind you note. It wouldn’t mean she was right by any means, but it would suggest that she could have recognized the wrong and changed on her own…” Absolutely. There is no excuse other than bigotry to maintain such values past the 1970s. Our sensitivities have transcended that time in history, and we all know better. Some choose to still behave that way, but we all know right from wrong now.

      And I’ll be taking bets that the Kardashians will knock Paula out of the Yahoo news ticker before long.

  11. This is a brave blog. I’m really glad you wrote it. I think we’re all forgiven, and united as people really calls for a huge dose of atonement, by all, and for all.

    Lots of love.

    • I did not feel very brave writing it. I felt frightened. But as you well know, my friend, only by acknowledging the past can we be free of it.

      And I’m big on forgiveness. For my heart knows all too well how in need of it I am myself. Thanks for visiting, El. Thanks for the unwavering support.

  12. Lisha, oh Lisha. I want to give you a big hug. The south isn’t easy. As the lone Jewish girl living in a small southern town I saw how the bigotry and racism shaded much of the land. I’ve seen it from all sides. What changed our immediate family was my parents moving us out of the country. From that distance we began to see the beauty of diversity.

    • Had I not left Louisiana I’m not sure I would be the person I am today. Change from within seems to go at an evolutionary pace. I needed face-slapping reality check that I got when I moved away.

      And thanks for the hug.

  13. Kelly Piper

    I understand this completely. I would like to think that everyone can say that they have grown into a better person. But I am sure that some have not. We just have to keep growing and becoming better then what our past has been.

    • Yes, Kelly, that’s it exactly. We all learn things that often need to be unlearned. I’m grateful to the people in my life who helped form me, both the bad and the good. And I’m very happy with the person I am now. Thanks for the kind words.

  14. I don’t even know anything about what went down with Paula Deen. And you know what, I don’t care about her. I’ll just address your part of things.

    I agree there is much work that needs to be done on all sides of this discourse. I’m tired of “tolerance.” I want civility. How about acceptance and love? I don’t come from a perfect family. We all have that aunt or uncle who says hateful things, but we don’t have to become that person.

    I try not to judge people by their words because sometimes people say stooopid things. But if someone says something repeatedly? I will call them on it. Always. Lisha, I know your heart. And when you say you have made a change in your heart and in your lexicon, I know it is so. I wish everyone was so self-reflective.

    • Thank you, sweet Renee. :-) Believe me, I am the queen of the kingdom of Saying Stooopid Things. I try to practice the advice I give my kids, to own my mistakes. Denying them or rationalizing them does nothing. Owning them — putting them out there for the world to see and call by their right name — that is how you transcend them. Self-reflection can be exhausting, but it’s very cathartic.

  15. Kay S.

    Having grown up a generation before you, also in the deep South, segregation and the n-word were also part of my reality. Except for the dear woman who ironed for my mom, I did not even know a black person. All that changed when I went to college. AND I CHANGED. As I made friends, I came to understand that we are all the same. I now have many dear friends who are of various races. There is a mixed-race person in our extended family. I have also come a long way, and it feels good.

    As for Paula Deen, I believe she is being attacked for some other reason. Matt Lauer went after her like a rabid dog, yet much worse is defended by him if it comes from a liberal. Paula is right: Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone. Although she isn’t my favorite personality, I support her. Quit the self-righteousness Food Network, Matt Lauer and all the other haters.

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