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Eugene Robinson: Food for thought on Paula Deen

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Updated: August 2, 2013 6:38AM



Paula Deen needs to give the self-pity a rest. The damage to her carefully built image is self-inflicted — nobody threw a rock — and her desperate search for approval and vindication is just making things worse.

Sorry to be so harsh, but come on. Deen is tough and savvy enough to have built a culinary empire from scratch, in the process becoming the most famous Southern cook in creation. She incarnates the whole “steel magnolia” archetype, with razor-sharp toughness beneath the flutter and the filigree.

“I is what I is,” she said in her weepy exculpation on the “Today” show.

And that’s fine. Go ahead, be what you be. Just don’t try to make everybody else responsible.

For anyone who somehow managed to miss this whole melodrama, Deen’s troubles stem from a deposition she gave last month in a lawsuit filed by a former employee.

Under oath, Deen acknowledged that “of course” she had used the racial slur known euphemistically as the N-word. This was years ago, she explained, and, well, people use inappropriate language when they’re telling jokes, but she never used that word in a hurtful way.

On the contrary, Deen told “Today” host Matt Lauer, she is now the victim — of “very, very hurtful lies” and the erroneous judgments of “people I have never heard of (who) are all of a sudden experts on who I am.”

I guess that includes me. But I believe Deen is familiar with the Food Network, Smithfield Foods, Wal-Mart, Target, Caesars Entertainment and the Novo Nordisk pharmaceutical company, all of which have severed or suspended their business relationships with her in recent days.

The question isn’t just whether Deen used an ugly, forbidden word, or how many times she used it, or how long ago that was. The question is whether there is anything about race and diversity in this country that she really understands.

For me, the most jaw-dropping passages in Deen’s deposition concern plans she was making for her brother Bubba’s wedding. In thinking about how the food service should be done, she recalled visiting a restaurant “in Tennessee or North Carolina or somewhere” that she admired.

“The whole entire wait staff was middle-aged black men, and they had on beautiful white jackets with a black bow tie,” Dean says in the deposition. “I mean, it was really impressive. And I remember saying I would love to have servers like that, I said, but I would be afraid that somebody would misinterpret.”

She goes on to acknowledge that in antebellum years those well-dressed servants would have been slaves, but clarifies that she “did not mean anything derogatory.” She needn’t worry, because the only person she’s derogating is herself.

I’ll put it in terms that someone who missed the last 50 years might understand: All black people are uppity now. Every one of us, I’m afraid.

I hope she figures it out, because anyone that fond of the deep-fryer can’t be all bad. A period of silence would be a good start. My advice: Eat some hushpuppies. And don’t talk with your mouth full.

Eugene Robinson is a Washington Post columnist



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