Paula Deen’s N-word controversy is misguided and blown out of proportion. In a deposition for a lawsuit against her, she admitted to using the N-word 26 years ago. In a private conversation with her husband in her own home, she used the N-word to refer to a man who had pointed a gun to her head while she worked as a teller during a 1987 bank robbery in Georgia. For that, her contracts with the Food Network, Wal-Mart and Home Depot, among others, have all been terminated. Basically she was fired over a private comment made nearly 30 years ago.
I don’t know about you, but if someone held a gun to my head, I would have all kinds of nasty words to say about him. I would call that person every name in a whole set of encyclopedias. I would buy a Ouija board, call his ancestor’s spirits back from the dead and proceed to call them names. I would call his pet gerbil bad names. And the person would deserve it, maybe not so much the gerbil, but most definitely the man with the gun.
It’s a little discouraging to see people get so worked up over this situation, which boils down to a private comment of a TV personality. Many were so quick to get onboard the Paula Deen bash-wagon, but it’s not like worse things haven’t been said and done by people in much greater positions of influence. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-SC, South Carolina’s ex-governor, lied, cheated, then got re-elected to the House of Representatives, in that order. Michael Steele, then Republican National Committee Chairman, raised his hand and used the phrase “Honest Injun” in an interview with Sean Hannity on Fox News. He gave an unrepentant apology and later said, “Fire me or shut up!” when criticized for his ever-growing antics. Every day in this country Native people endure culturally accepted racism. I don’t see Paula Deen doing the Tomahawk Chop. And I don’t see her dressed up in red face and Washington Redskins gear. As long as people walk into stadiums and exploit and jubilantly mock a culture that is already suffering under the weight of racism, poverty, disease and suicide, racism wins. It’s hypocrisy to rake Deen over the coals based on one private conversation she had nearly three decades ago, under duress, and let these types of no-apology-racist-Indian-mascot-you-should-feel-honored-ignorant-did I say racist? acts pass by with nary a tsk-tsk. There is no doubt about this special brand of racism that snubs its nose and jabs its finger in open wounds. Indian mascots do nothing to “honor” our culture. Thank you, but no thank you. I don’t feel honored. Would white America feel honored with a mascot of a pig dressed up in an American flag sporting a cigar and a fistful of dollars? I don’t think so, but from someone who has lived and worked in D.C., that seems a far more fitting and accurate mascot for a Washington team.
It’s hypocrisy to accuse another for the same offense you yourself have committed and refused to apologize for. Let’s thoughtfully consider Matt Lauer’s use of “Indian giver” on live television. While covering the London Olympics and during a conversation with Meredith Viera over underwear, the world watched as he used the pejorative Indian giver. When the public, including the National Congress of American Indians, voiced their outrage, surely an apology would be forthcoming, right? When you hurt someone, you say you are sorry. Alas, Matt Lauer could not accept responsibility for his words when not even a shadow of a doubt lingered, and certainly gave no remorseful apology, because there was NO apology. When Kris Jenner and Jessica Simpson used the same slur, and those genteel souls Rush Limbaugh and Michael Steele had their fun at the expense of all Native Americans, there was no public outrage, no sponsors getting out of Dodge, no advertisers taking their money elsewhere. Barely a tweet of mainstream media coverage was heard. Where was the same tearing of clothes and gnashing of teeth that Paula Deen’s dusty remark garnered?
It’s also hypocrisy to say the N-word is okay if it comes out of this mouth, but not out of that mouth. Absolutely no one should say it regardless of race, regardless of context. In her interview on Today, Deen said she didn’t know how offensive the N-word is anymore because of its prevalence in this generation’s daily language. She’s right. The word seems accepted within the black community, mostly as a variation of the words brother or sister. You can hear this word in jokes, rap music and conversations between friends. It’s only offensive when a white person uses it. This word once so vilified, historically used to dehumanize, now seems to dishonor the previous generation’s fight against it. Why not leave it alone as a testament to ignorance and hatred? What if we start wearing backward swastikas and inverted crosses, or calling each other the names some died over just because we can? Yes, these words and symbols have their own power, but it is an evil power, something best not messed with. Don’t make even the smallest opening for darkness to find its way in. Keeping the N-word in the current vernacular reduces it to mere slang or profanity and lessens our ability to be offended by it. And in the process we forget the lesson and become frogs swimming in a boiling pot.
This scandal says more about the people scrambling to the other side of the road than it does about Deen herself. As much as Food Network, Wal-Mart, Today, etc. want to be the judge and jury, they are not. Actions will always speak louder than words. Does she only have white people working in her restaurants or on her show? Does she exploit poor workers? Does she sell items with Indian mascots on them? Does she use and dump people for ratings? Compare employment statistics and practices between her businesses and these “fair weather” companies like Wal-Mart and Today and I’ll bet she comes out on top. In their eyes, the offense wasn’t against race, the offense was against money and ratings and their ability to look good in front of the public. They saw a “family” member struggling, and instead of helping her and being quick to forgive, which a true family would do, they distanced themselves from her and exploited her for quick and easy ratings. The art of the second chance was lost on them.
I believe it was God who said in more or less terms, “You thought it, you bought it." Everyone has said or thought an unkind word about others, EVERYONE. If you say you haven’t, well good for you, God is spit shining your throne in heaven as we speak. Paula Deen did something everyone of us has done, maybe not use the N-word but was in the possession of an unkind word, thought, or deed; she told the truth when she could have easily lied, as so many do as well as they breath; she admitted and apologized repeatedly, as many who are caught in the act could never do. I’m reminded of the biblical story where Jesus told the people to go ahead and stone the couple caught in adultery, just let the person without sin cast the first stone. And no one could of course. Or the parable of the speck and the log where Jesus said, “you look at the speck in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the log in your own”. Today many people are gathered around Paula Deen with logs in their eyes and stones in their fists. “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” No one can cast stones, not you, not me. As there is much to be forgiven of me, I have had the good fortune to look into the beautiful faces of mercy and forgiveness. So I endeavor to go and do likewise.
Crystal Willcuts Cole, Mnicoujou Lakota and Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe member, was born in Rapid City, South Dakota and is an artist, writer, and poet currently residing in Big Stone Gap, Virginia with her husband and two children.