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?