Paula Deen and the “N” Word

Paul Deen's "N" Word Use

(Photo Credit: NPR)

The recent controversy surrounding Paula Deen’s use of the “N” word has evinced, as Randall Kennedy puts it, “the strange career of a troublesome word.”  The “N” word is arguably the most incendiary, insensitive, and hateful word someone can use.  When one considers that this word was employed during the American institution of slavery to characterize Black people as being less than human, it becomes not only a mean-spirited, racist and degrading term, but also a term used to maintain the power structure of slavery and Jim Crow.  A recent legal deposition revealed that Paul Deen has used the “N” word in the past, specifically as part of her desire to construct a “very southern style” wedding for her brother that would include a “whole entire wait staff” of “middle-aged black men.”

Deen’s use of the “N” word is deeply problematic for many reasons, including the overt racist history and ideology of the word.  If there was one word many people could ban, it would be the “N” word.  I would love for us to be able to magically eviscerate its history, power, and ideology.  Unfortunately, this is only possible in Science Fiction literature and films.  We have to deal directly with this word because it’s an important part of America’s past and present history.  To attempt to avoid engaging critically with this word is to be self-victimized by historical amnesia, disengagement from history, and vexing colorblindness.

Paula Deen’s use of the “N” word is inexcusable.  She fully understands the racist history and ideology of this word.  I’m not prepared, however, to call this woman a racist.  From what I have observed and know about her, she seems to be a nice lady.  In America, we use many hateful terms that we don’t necessarily attach genuine hate to—we just use them.  When many Black people use the “N” word and its various derivatives, they’re not using the words with hate—they’re just using the words.  Should we excuse them for their use of the “N” word?  No.

What this controversy exposes is a problem of nostalgia for the pre-Civil War South.  While I can understand why many White southerners can find some phenomena about the pre-Civil War South to be desirable, those nostalgic longings need to show empathy for this time period being a brutal and murderous period for Blacks.  It’s not like Deen is unaware of the racist and discriminatory history of the pre-Civil War South.  In Postmodernism or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Fredric Jameson contends that one of the most problematic things about postmodernism, the historical and cultural moment in which we reside, is it has a problem with writing its own history because it depends on nostalgia rather than reality.  Deen’s nostalgia blinds her from being fully sensitive to America’s horrid racist and discriminatory history.  Mrs. Deen’s nostalgia causes America’s racist history to the rise to the surface for the nation to contemplate.  If one is going to engage in nostalgia for the past, he or she should be responsible about the full history of the longed for past.

I’m a fan of Paula Deen’s cooking, recipes, and personality.  Her poor choice of language, however, I cannot and will not support.  While Americans enjoy the freedom of speech (and all speech is not constitutionally protected), they also have to accept the responsibilities of their speech.  I posit that The Food Network should have let the market determine if Mrs. Deen should be fired—not simply make a decision based on immediate reactions in the mainstream media to aspects of the reported legal deposition.

Even though I don’t normally agree with Roland Martin (and we’ve exchanged words in the past on Twitter when I contended that he often makes many inconsequential statements on Twitter), I agree with him in part when he argues that Black people cannot be angry with Paula Deen because they use the word so often.  Yes, Blacks and Whites need to stop using the word.  If the word is so offensive to Blacks, then they should discontinue using it.  The fundamental defect in Martin’s argument, however, is his conflation of Deen’s use of the “N” word with the way in which numerous Blacks use it.  When many Blacks primarily use the word, it comes from a non-racist and non-disparaging context.  The context of Deen’s use of the word is at a minimum disparaging.  If she didn’t want to have to be accountable for her words, then she shouldn’t have used them.

Paula Deen should be evaluated by her body of work.  Too often we judge and define people by the one or two mistakes they make, instead of considering the many great things they have done and accomplished.

Antonio Maurice Daniels

University of Wisconsin-Madison