Paula Deen, the white queen of Southern cooking, admits to saying nigger sometimes.
If you have read the Jezebel.com and colorlines.com and other posts that have inundated the web for the last few days since Lisa Jackson, a white woman, who was manager of one of the Deen family’s Savannah restaurants called something like Uncle Bubba’s shrimp and whatever, sued Deen, you think that’s the extent of Jackson’s complaint. But Jackson’s lawsuit is just as much about being underpaid, sexism, and claims of being sexually harassed for years by good ole Uncle Bubba, himself as it is about the racism of a public figure who is representational of the New South. These news posts have left people less than half informed.
I want to be clear. I have always felt uncomfortable about Paula Deen. I have my prejudices, and one of them is a kneejerk suspicion of southern whites of a certain age. I have to wonder where were they when…civil rights workers were being beaten and killed, black children were being discriminated against in school, white people seemed to follow the rules of segregation without question. I have had to learn to recognize my own prejudice. To remind myself that there were many whites who jeopardized their livelihoods and their family safety to fight segregation. The more I have been willing to learn from the people around me; the more I have found people who help me disabuse myself of prejudice. And I have been very fortunate, but still..there was always something about Paula Deen that I was wary of. To me she was making millions off southern cooking, which owes a lot to black people, without ever acknowledging anyone black except Oprah.
So my disclaimer out of the way, I am really alarmed as a feminist and a black person to see how this lawsuit story is coming out in dribs and drabs. It originated in the National Enquirer, a truly sterling publication owned by the corrupt Rupert Murdock, a man whose news staffs thought nothing of listening in on the cell phone calls of any celebrity or non-public figure caught in an unfortunate situation, and whose News of the World tabloid was shut down because of rampant unethical and illegal behavior in its newsgathering techniques. Murdock is also the owner of Fox News. I don’t think I need to say more than that.
So when someone posted links to the depositions in the case, I read them, seeking to find a glimmer of the truth. Primary sources, particularly when it comes to lawsuits, are gold mines of information. In reading these documents, I learned that the case was about far more than Paula Deen saying nigger every once in a while, which is bad enough: it was about a lot more than that.
It was about a woman who was a promoted to a managerial position that her employer told her to her face she wouldn’t be able to do because she was a woman. It was about, according to Jackson, having to enforce, even after she told the owners it was wrong, a set of rules that said that no one black was supposed to ever come out of the kitchen or be visible to the restaurant guests, or use the same restrooms as the guests. It was about listening to her boss call those black kitchen staff monkeys and watching him become so angry at one black man that he shook the man and spit in his face.
It was about having Uncle Bubba watch porn on the computer in the office Jackson shared with him during business hours while she was there. Uncle Bubba refused to stop and to listen to her complaints about it. It’s about Uncle Bubba wandering into the restaurant drunk and doing things like grabbing her face and kissing her in front of a room full of customers.
It is also about being able to prove that her salary was always about 25 percent less than the man who held the job before her simply because she was a woman.
In her deposition, Deen was a study in denial and forgetfulness. We expect someone who is being accused of something to say “I don’t remember saying that,” or “I forget,” but to me it was revealing to read what Deen said she did remember. She admitted being very impressed with a restaurant in “Tennessee or North Carolina” she visited one weekend. The food was fabulous but what Deen was struck by was the waitstaff. She said they were all middle aged “black men” who were professional waiters who had earned good livings from that profession, and she just wished she could afford to transport that place and those black men to Savannah so her husband could see what the real South used to be like. Jackson said that Deen used the word nigger to describe the men. Deen said she did not. She said she uses black because that is what “the black race” prefers.
Deen said she was aware that she suspected her old-style Southern dining experience, complete with all black middle aged waiters, would not go over well with some of the people she knew in Savannah. Still she denied being racist. She denied that her brother was an alcoholic whom she gave free rein to terrorize the staff. She also said that when she heard complaints from Jackson, mostly about sexism, she did nothing. Her defense was men will be men. Men like to tell crude jokes about oral sex, blacks, rednecks, etc. That’s just the way they are.
Jackson said in the five years she worked there, Uncle Bubba’s got money from the larger parent company owned by Deen whenever it needed money. Jackson said Bubba’s drunken displays hurt the restaurant to the point that she recommended turning it into a banquet hall, a move that would give better control over when Bubba would be there.
Deen, by her own admission in her deposition, seems to have had no awareness that she needed to be concerned about anything at Uncle Bubba’s. Now she stands to lose not only the money she has spent so far covering up her brother’s blunders, but millions to Jackson. She is in monumental denial about the abysmal state of this business, and it has caught up to her.
It infuriates me that the spin that has set in so quickly made this story only about whether Paula Deen said nigger. Paula Deen is an example of management that can’t see its own racism and sexism. I don’t think she even realizes how as a person in power, she allowed the lives of her staff to a made a living hell, and she wasted the opportunities to help people enhance their lives by working for her. She reveals her own prejudice about who is best suited to do certain jobs. Black middle aged men are suited to be professional waiters, for some reason. White men are suited to manage restaurants. Jackson said Deen gave women a weak endorsement when Deen said she didn’t have a problem with a “piece of pussy” being a manager. Deen denied that she used those words. What Deen couldn’t deny was that she promoted a woman to a position where that woman would encounter sexism and racism, and Deen did next to nothing about backing that woman up.
We have not heard from Bubba Hiers. Deen’s brother and the famous Uncle Bubba himself, has not been heard from publicly. I want to hear his version of his sad, messy, boorish behavior in this.
That may be the ultimate irony in this story. When you look at this case as solely a matter of whether Deen said nigger or not, Bubba still gets a free ride.
I will be watching as this case unfolds.