Monday, June 24, 2013

Why Paula Deen's Racism Matters: Black Dignity Versus White Fantasies

I am still trying to figure out why the Paula Deen debacle is of so much interest to the American public.

There are certainly more important matters of public importance that go beyond a TV personality's racial peccadilloes. The Trayvon Martin murder trial has finally begun. The range and depth of the United States government's violations of the privacy rights of the American people continue to be exposed. There are preparations for a military misadventure in Syria. The Supreme Court ruled on affirmative action. The economy remains a wreck.

Yet, Paula Deen remains a focus of national attention.

Of course, the public's fascination with Paula Deen is a function of how the American people love to see celebrities fall from feted and praised to reviled and despised. They then reinvent themselves to be worshiped again. Thus, the cycle of fame and ignominy continues in perpetuity.

Paula Deen's transparent and guileless racism is also a tool and object of national catharsis. Institutional racism remains a significant problem in post civil rights America. Those who embody "old fashioned racism" like Paula Deen can be condemned as a means for the (White) body politic to bathe in the self-congratulatory rays of just how "far" we/they have come. By suggesting that Paula Deen is a social and political dinosaur, one best fit for the dustbin of America's racial past, colorblind racism of the present is overlooked--if not nurtured.

It is easy to condemn the public drunk. It is much harder to talk about one's own private alcoholism.

For me, Paula Deen's racism is especially provocative not because of her use of inflammatory language. I am also not surprised that a proud child of the South would also be a bigot. The ghosts of the Confederacy, racial terrorism, slavery, as well as Jim and Jane Crow, are part of Deen's chosen baggage. All Americans share the legacy; some of us triumphed over it; other Americans choose to uncritically give power to the worst aspects of it by wrapping themselves in folksy nostalgia, that by definition, flattens history and is both uncritical and unthinking.

Paula Deen's racism is particularly problematic because it reduces black folks and our humanity to one dimensional props that are can be arranged on the stage of White Fantasy. The nameless, smiling butlers and maids that are central to Deen's racist fantasy are human footstools for her comfort. Those black folks are necessarily silenced, except when uttering the obligatory phrases which make the White Fantasy work and cohere.

"Yes, boss" and "yes, ma'am" or "we aims to please" and the obligatory smile from black servants to white folks in Jim and Jane Crow America--and elsewhere throughout the United States, the Caribbean, South Asia, and other places where white supremacy and white authority was reinforced over people of color by such day-to-day rituals--were functions of the mask that oppressed people wear when negotiating Power.

Feigned politeness and submission are survival strategies in a world where the colorline elevated some and dominated many others. Jim and Jane Crow, and white supremacy more generally, made all white folks royalty even if they were white trash. That is the crux and heart of Paula Deen's fantasy of black man servants and plantation weddings.

Black butlers, black maids, Pullman Car Porters, and others who had to compromise their dreams in order to try to make a life in a world of gross and violent discrimination, possessed a quiet dignity and strength (and contributed resources) which helped to fuel the Black Freedom Struggle.

Those anonymous Pullman car porters were real people who were not named "George." "Auntie," the "cherished" black maid, did not love those white children more than her own.

Fantasies fueled by White nostalgia do not talk back. They are projections of the White Gaze. By comparison, real people do in fact have thoughts, feelings, and insights.

For example, the documentary Miles of Smiles explores the difficulty of how Pullman car porters balanced a life of service with maintaining personal dignity:
The porter was often depicted as an object of ridicule in movies and songs. He had to struggle against this popular image of himself as an “Uncle Tom.” 
But the porters knew that being a servant was simply a role that they put on and took off along with their uniforms. They weren’t ashamed of being servants, but they never lost sight of the fact that first and foremost, they were men. 
As one of the porters in Miles of Smiles explains it, “Anything that you can do, you can do it with your head up. It’s what you think of yourself. If you think you’re an Uncle Tom, you’re an Uncle Tom. Whether you’re a Pullman porter or whatever you are. But I never thought that I was an Uncle Tom.” 
Another porter explains, “I think that if you have the courage, dignity and respect for yourself, you can be a man while being a servant.” 
And as far as smiling for tips goes, another porter says, “When the passenger comes in, and he’s smiling, you can be pleasant without “grinning” as we call it. You can treat him nice without that. You don’t have to do that. And if he’s gonna tip me because I’m gonna grin, I don’t need it and don’t want it. But if he tips me because of my service, that’s what I’m there for, to give him that service.”
I wonder how Paula Deen would respond if the people in her fantasies talked back to her? What would she do with that nightmare?


pjwhite said...

"It is easy to condemn the public drunk. It is much harder to talk about one's own private alcoholism." Yeah, but here's the thing: public drunks do a lot more damage than private drunks. I'm not saying "private alcoholism" is better - but when you know enough to be ashamed of your drunkenness, and can admit that you are drunk, you can admit that it is dangerous to get behind the wheel of a car. You can admit that you are in a condition that can seriously hurt other people. This is what Paula Deen failed to admit to herself. I was raised in an extremely racist family. They were also a sexually abusive, violent, and misogynistic family (scratch a sexist, and a racist will bleed). I am sure I still have racist and sexist attitudes. My main concern is that I remain aware of that fact and seek to ensure that I do not inadvertently harm other people because of it. If you are racist or sexist or want to have sex with children - please feel free to keep that ugliness to yourself. It is a problem - your problem - and it is your responsibility not to turn it into a problem for innocent bystanders.

Miles_Ellison said...

America has "evolved" to a point where being called a racist is considered worse than actually being one. I find it interesting that all manner of racist statements and actions have spewed forth since Obama's election and re-election, yet nobody is a racist. To produce this amount of racism with no racists has to rank among the greatest magic tricks of all time.

tnrc75 said...

Public drunks are fewer in number and they're just props to make the rest of us feel better. Most of us aren't so far gone that we're out wilding in public having taken the worst of a 5th of Jack. However, lots more shit goes on in many, many, many, many more places which can and will be denied and whose knowledge will never see the light of day.

pjwhite said...

Sad but true. But if we stop calling out public displays of racism, there will be a lot more of them "out and proud." And do we really need to see more confederate flags flying? Also - Paula Deen does not make me "feel better". She makes me feel discouraged.

tnrc75 said...

I don't disagree with you and I don't think Chauncey does either. There are many vectors in the battle to end racism....quite honestly Paula Deen doesn't make me feel worse. I've seen this stuff with my own eyes and the fact that it's coming into public view should only alert us that there is more work to do.

pjwhite said...

True. There is clearly a LOT more work to do if she thinks her behavior was okay. And she has so many defenders. People are trying to make a martyr out of this rich woman with a cooking show who abused her employees. Argh!

chauncey devega said...

I hear you. But, I always try to challenge myself. How does challenging Dean play into the long term game of social justice? As you can see here I am of so many minds.

chauncey devega said...

Individuals or structures? Do we attack both or just one as sites of engagement? I am so conflicted.

chauncey devega said...

"I am sure I still have racist and sexist attitudes."

Powerful sharing. Appreciated. Why are some of us--all of us--not so self reflective?

pjwhite said...

Why can't we attack both? The danger of a Paula Deen is that we can pretend it is her own individual problem, when this is something that is and has been supported by society. Without the structural racism, individual racism can't do much harm. That's why someone can call me a "cracker" and I don't give a damn: because all of the power structures are set up to support me. We need to acknowledge that Paula Deen is merely a symptom of a much deeper and more insidious problem. I get what you are saying now. Paula Deen only serves to highlight the underlying disease of racism, and it should not be assumed that getting rid of her does ANYTHING to eliminate the real underlying structural problems. I think I was misunderstanding you before, but now I see how Paula Deen can be used as a kind of racist red herring. Thanks, Chauncey!

pjwhite said...

Blame it on the 12 Steps of AA. I'd be dead if I weren't self-reflective.Also - I find your writing to be very self-reflective

tnrc75 said...

Shaming Paula Deen is like shooting fish in a barrel. Changing a culture is a whole other level of madness.

Constructive_Feedback said...

Wait a minute, sir.

You just promoted the TRAYVON MARTIN TRIAL, a mere 1,158 miles away from your home in Chicago above any of the Black people who were murdered in Chicago this year.

Why do you ask "Why is the Paula Deen issue so important"?

Is it because it radiates more with the American Negro in Chicago than does the "Justice For Skittles Trial"?

Why couldn't you bring yourself to ask: "WHY ISN'T THE BLACK COMMUNITY AS TUNED IN to the 500 murder trials that occur in Chicago each year?"

johnya said...

That dirt under the rug and the black community finds it easier to make the white community to clean their house then to clean their own.

CS said...

What I find sad about this whole affair is how tangential much of the conversation is. How much of it is driven by the spectacle of a monolithic and reductive antagonism that does nothing more than feed an exhausted cultural narrative. What seems far more important to me is how Paula Deen and Bubba Hiers' applied their views in the workplace even after years of complaints from the plaintiff. I'd like to see her held publicly accountable for the oppressive work environment she helped to create and sustain. Her symptoms are a matter of consciousness and psychology and I wish we could unpack what HAPPENS when they orbit around an axis of economic power.