Paula Deen grew up in Georgia. In the ’50s. Her world was the one depicted in The Help, in which black people’s status as lesser beings was casually assumed. So, who is really surprised that she has used the N word in her life? It would be downright strange if she hadn’t, and we can assume the same of pretty much any white Southerner of a certain age (not to mention more than a few Americans of other regions).
And yet the Food Network has fired her after revelations that Deen has been a normal person of her time and place, even though she has leveled no fewer than three public apologies. The reason is the unique status of the N word.
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In modern America, we really have only a few genuinely profane words, and the N word is one of them. Sure, we call a certain suite of four-letter words profanity, and they once were. However, they are now used so freely by most that they qualify more as salty. A Martian, hearing our “bad words” decorating our hit songs, tossed off in movies, used in a hit parody children’s book like Go the F–k to Sleep, and sprinkled into ordinary conversation, would never even think to describe these words as “bad.”
Yet we do have words we treat as truly unthinkable. They are no longer about excretion or sexual intercourse or religion, but about disrespecting groups of people. One begins with F; another begins with C.
The third is the N word. Even the sassiest comedy shows refrain from tossing it around. We shudder at the thought of our children using it. And we regularly watch celebrities treated as if they were lepers for saying it — comedian Michael Richards in 2006 — or even saying it to refer to it, like Laura Schlessinger in 2010.
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This taboo status, then, is why Deen is being fired for what her fans are decrying as “just using a word,” and also why Deen in her videos steps around even saying what she said. Yet this restraint on her part is also an indication that she, like most Americans, has gotten the message. Crucially, getting the message doesn’t mean becoming superhuman. Changing times cannot utterly expunge all traces in her of the old South’s assumptions. Old habits of thought linger, like eczema and asthma.
So yes, she just might pop out with the N word in private in a heated moment. And yes, a certain part of her will see something vaguely nostalgic in the sight of black men as waiters. In this, she represents a transitional stage between the then and the now. Deen was already a 20-something when the old racist order broke down; her worldview had pretty much jelled. How could she have a perfectly egalitarian take on race growing up when and where she did?
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People of Deen’s generation can neither change the past nor completely escape their roots in it, any more than the rest of us. They can apologize and mean it, as Deen seems to. They also deserve credit for owning up to past sins, as Deen did candidly when she could easily have, shall we say, whitewashed the matter.
The taboo on the N word, and associated attitudes, is appropriate. It’s certainly smarter than the goofiness of the 1800s when the terms white and dark meat emerged to avoid the possible sexual connotations of referring to breasts and thighs. However, we’re less smart when we turn taboo enforcement into implacable witch hunting, which is not thought but sport.
Deen is old and she’s sorry. She should get her job back.