The Paula Deen in Me
This is one of the controversies I didn’t realize was happening until it mostly already happened. And despite the fact that there are better news cycles (pretty much everything done by the Supreme court, not to mention Texan state politics) going on right now it doesn’t seem to go away either. So while I have stayed quiet I do want to ponder three thoughts that keep recurring to me with every article and post I see about Paula Deen.
Before that, one quick mention. I’m white. I’m male. I come from an upper-middle class family in the Midwest. I claim those things without shame, and yet with recognition of what that means and the ways I have unfairly benefitted from a society that overly prizes many of those characteristics. I name that here because on the subjects of race and racism I wish to name that my own context cannot do anything but approach that conversation from a place of privilege – so take my thoughts with a huge grain of salt. And while I name that, I also feel I have an authentic place from which to speak and so I do.
I have real trouble with the Paula Deen scandal, and it really has very little to do with Paula Deen. I’m not a Paula fan, I have never watched her show (though I watch some cooking competitions so I know who she is) and I have absolutely no desire to defend her or her actions. I also think such actions ought to have consequences. But it is about the consequences, and our actions as part of them, that I have concern. And to be fair, I have this reaction almost every time a celebrity is “taken down” for some shameful act or comment or thought. (Paterno comes to mind, and I might say more about that later.)
So without further ado, my 3 thoughts on the subject:
1) My first thought on seeing this “scandal” reported was, “this is why people aren’t honest.” She confessed (albeit not really of her own will, but she could have lied) to some unkind and unjust thoughts and practices. She isn’t alone – she comes from a culture where such thoughts and practices are the unjust norm – but she was immediately stripped of job and shamed in the public eye. Maybe this is right… maybe it isn’t. I’m not sure. But my thought went back to South Africa and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. At the heart of that process was amnesty for those willing to come forward and speaking openly of the injustice, hatred, and death they had perpetrated. It was in this arena that social and society-wide healing became possible. It didn’t end racism. But it strikes me that social reconciliation rather than retribution allowed that people didn’t have to hide their “sins” but a sinful people could begin to be honest about the shame they were already carrying in their hearts. Does such a process work for all people? Does this even apply here? I don’t know. But my first reaction watching this unfold was – honest confession has been given no place in a world where any crack in the armor is exploited to “take you down.”
2) This leads me to what really bothers me about all such scandals. The way we seem to jump on board in decrying someone else’s sin – as if we have none. Like this article which I enjoyed, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-w-twitty/an-open-letter-to-paula-deen_b_3502048.html I’m want to quote Avenue Q, “we are all a little bit racist.” When such moments occur as a public unveiling of ubiquitous reality (racism is everywhere, hiding beneath a veneer of… something) I always hope for an apocalyptic learning process. We have a teachable moment. We can choose to use this as a moment to stop and learn something about ourselves and our engagement with the world. How is racism lurking in all of us, our communities, and our society? Such moments – to my mind – shouldn’t be about some celebrity, or local teacher, or whomever… it should be about me. I told you I might talk about Joe Paterno, and here it goes. That whole thing bothered me to no end. It isn’t that I think Paterno didn’t cover up horrible things and further abusive and destructive practice in the name of winning. It’s that I think a lot of us do in very subtle ways. And yet rather than recognize that at the time, we just choose to maintain blindness to our own injustice by jumping on the bandwagon decrying someone else’s sin. Does your community have clear practices in place to protect the voiceless, the abused, and the powerless? Does your community have clear, and unavoidable, practices in place to limit the potential for abuse amongst those vested with power and authority? These are the questions such apocalypses (revelations of truth that has been hidden from eyes) should raise in us. Instead we so often take to the stands in the coliseum to watch another person fall.
3) On this last one if feel like I stand on shakier ground. This is why my confession of my context at the beginning. A part of this conversation has gotten us to the argument that some words can be used by insiders but not outsiders (in this particular case the N-word). It is, to quote one commenter, the phenomena that I can speak ill of my family but you may not. Lots of opinions on that subject, some from smarter people than me and more invested in culture than a WASPy Midwesterner (it comes up briefly in the previously posted article – call his opinion the counter-testimony to my own). I really don’t buy this argument personally, but I admit I could well be off track. I think if something is wrong to be said, it’s wrong to be said. And I think if there is ill to name and there are good ways to name it and bad ways to name it – that is true for insider and outside alike. If I cannot stand to hear you speak of my family in a certain way than this should mean I shouldn’t speak of my family in that way either. It’s more painful to hear it from an outsider – true – but such defensiveness should be teaching me something, not you. I learned this lesson twice with my kids recently – kids are good at mirroring our own sins back at us. Don’t blame the kid, learn about yourself through them, and then work together not to repeat our past. I don’t want to talk about another culture’s sins either so let me take this to culture, and not family, through my own culture. I claim a Polish heritage, I’m 50% polish (all on my dad’s side). I carry that name, and I claim it for myself. I even look the part. But you know what – there are some really sucky parts of my Polish culture. And just because it’s mine, doesn’t make it good nor should it endorse the furtherance of such hurtful ways and means. I love my culture but not whole cloth. And so I choose not participate in some of it while retaining from it that which I love. Sometimes I will fail at that. I will need you to point this out because I’m too close to it all. So I hereby give you permission to speak ill of my family (in love), and to speak ill of my culture (in love), and to remind me when I get defensive about your speaking that I told you to do so, so that I my learn, and grow, and we might all love each other into a better reality.