PSA: White People Have Privilege and Paula Deen Shows Us Why

The train wreck that is now Paula Deen’s career has been smattered all over the news and everyone’s Facebook feeds the last few days. I just want to point out an important take away for all the white people who may be following it. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, read excerpts of the deposition that started the firestorm here.

Let’s get one thing straight off the bat. There is no context, there is no way to interpret, there is no place that would make anything she says in the deposition okay. None of that is okay–ever. I think most people are on the same page about that, hence the firestorm.

Her statements about jokes, however, really get to the heart of a very important issue. (The bold is the attorney asking the questions and the normal type is Deen’s responses):

What about jokes, if somebody is telling a joke that’s got —

It’s just what they are, they’re jokes.

Okay. Would you consider those to be using the N word in a mean way?

That’s — that’s kind of hard. Most — most jokes are about Jewish people, rednecks, black folks. Most jokes target — I don’t know. I didn’t make up the joke, I don’t know. I can’t — I don’t know.

Okay.

They usually target, though, a group. Gays or straights, black, redneck, you know, I just don’t know — I just don’t know what to say. I can’t, myself, determine what offends another person.

Okay, well —

I can feel out that person pretty good on what would offend them, but I’m not sure…what — what the question even means.

Only someone in a position of power could attempt to justify derogatory jokes or comments by claiming they affect them just like everyone else (she mentions “straights” and “rednecks” twice, though I’m only assuming that she would put herself in that latter “category.”) Those sorts of jokes don’t typically bother white people, seem completely harmless, because the vast majority of white people in this country have never been on the receiving end of systemic oppression, negative racial profiling, etc. that these sorts of jokes and comments tend to highlight. That is, white people have a particular unspoken privilege that allows people like Paula Deen to wrestle with the ethics of telling off color jokes or to fantasize about slave-staffed dinner parties or to justify using the “N-word” under certain circumstances, which white people dictate.

And I’m not going to insult the intelligence of Deen or any other older white Southerner by saying, “Well, they grew up in a different era, so I’ll forgive the fact that they’re a little racist.” They live in this era, and I know that there are plenty of older white folks who grew up in the South who are totally outraged by Deen and her comments. They’re just not excusable, and they confront us directly with the reality of white privilege in this country.

**Addendum: 6.25.2013**

I don’t like editing posts since I think blogs should be a crystalization of the writer’s thoughts at a given time, but through a conversation with someone about this issue, I thought it really important to add a note about the public outrage, Food Network’s firing, and the buzz that others who have contracts with Deen are considering breaking ties. I think I made it sound like that since everyone is more or less onboard with her comments being racist, the outrage alone is justified. However, I should mention that this public “execution” of Deen is really nothing more than a pseudo-action which allows the white public and Food Network, et. al. to disavow their own secret racist attitudes.

That isn’t a conspiracy theory. In psychoanalysis, this is called fetish disavowal (see Lacan and Zizek.) People hold all sorts of “closeted” negative attitudes or secret desires–that shouldn’t be a revelation. Casual racism among white folks is probably one of the most pervasive in our country. It goes as an unwritten rule that you don’t name that racism explicitly (i.e. you don’t talk in public about black children tap dancing for your entertainment, whether seriously or in jest.) As soon as it is named, people are confronted with their own similar attitudes and are forced to condemn and condemn strongly. Plausible deniability is impossible once the unwritten rule is named. This is what I meant by the last sentence of the original post.

So the outrage allows us to demonstrate that it’s not us but someone else, while still maintaining the casual racism we want to continue participating in (i.e. enjoying shows like Game of Thrones or Madmen, telling jokes, etc.) It’s uncomfortable to think that some of the things we enjoy are actually part of the problem, and scapegoating Deen helps us cope with that instead of using the situation as an opportunity to exercise our own racist demons.

The Theology of Superman: Hope for the Empire

By now, many will have already seen this article or others like it describing the Warner Bros. campaign to get pastors to talk about Man of Steel this past Sunday, which was Fathers’ Day, using a guide developed by Pepperdine theologian Craig Detweiler. The main thrust of the sermon is centered around this question: “How might the story of Superman awaken our passion for the greatest hero who ever lived and died and rose again?”

The CNN story goes on to set up the “debate” surrounding this marketing tactic on the part of Warner Bros. as between Christians who think this is a good way to show the world that we can get behind something in pop culture and those who think films are “pumped out from Hollywood’s sewers.”

What is fascinating to me about this set up is that it simply takes the messianic parallels as given and obvious. The film is just obviously about Jesus and a parallel to his story–so now the only question is whether or not Christians are willing to trust Hollywood to speak the story of Jesus to them through a “worldly” medium like film. As Detweiler himself is quoted in the article, “All too often, religious communities have been defined by what they’re against. With a movie like `Man of Steel,’ this is a chance to celebrate a movie that affirms faith, sacrifice and service.”

My concern is that “faith, sacrifice, and service,” while all wonderful attributes to have, do not sum up the story of Jesus. In fact, by making that the distillation of Jesus’ life and ministry, the sermon notes seem to direct us away from what should be the most troubling divergences between the story of Superman and the story of Jesus by focusing on the archetypal parallels.

No one should be surprised that Man of Steel, or the mythology of Superman more generally, has strong parallels to the Jesus narrative. You would be hard-pressed to find a story archetype in Western literature that cannot be traced back to the biblical narrative. With regard to superhero archetypes especially, the parallels to the story of Christ and the messianic archetype (which does not originate with Jesus) are more than obvious. So what, then, could these sermon notes be other than a reminder, saying, “Hey! Stories like Man of Steel are retellings of your religion’s story of salvation. But with way more explosions. Let’s look at this clip!” Superman is a story of hope. Kal-El is a character (like Spock, like Gandalf, like a lot of characters in the world of science fiction and fantasy) who deviates from his origin, his true nature, choosing to become more human and embracing those characteristics (usually emotion, empathy, etc.) which are made to be the epitome of humanness, and suffering some consequences for it.

The problem is that to say the story of Jesus can be encapsulated in a single statement about the hope of salvation makes that story completely one-dimensional and misses the what of salvation entirely. And by the way, this one-dimensional view of salvation is probably how many Christians view their own faith: Jesus has punched my ticket into Heaven–now that’s something I can put my hope in! That’s why we love stories like this–or any other myriad versions of the story of hope in salvation from… something.

It’s that something that makes up the really vital difference between Superman and Jesus. Man of Steel is an origin story, establishing the basic relationships between Superman and everyone else so that a few more films can be made before another reboot. One of those relationships is between Superman and the US government–that is, Superman and the empire. Some (especially Evangelicals) will find that comparison offensive, but it’s certainly true. You don’t earn the title of “World Superpower” without being an empire. So Superman goes “on call” for the empire at the end of the film. He’s not its soldier, like the Marvel parallel Captain America. He still maintains some independence, but he also has no interest in subverting the empire in any way. Now, I don’t mean a coup d’etat like his friend General Zod stages on Krypton. But the US perpetrates plenty of injustice worldwide on a daily basis. What would be really Christlike is if in the second film, we see Superman staging nonviolent protests against drone strikes on innocent people, or helping to shut down Gitmo, choosing not to use his immense power when he very easily could–we could go on and on like this. Instead, Superman becomes a symbol of hope for the empire itself. The film may portray Superman’s struggle with his identity, and I think it does a good job of that, but at the end of the day, Superman is not just a human–he’s an American.

Admittedly, the nonviolent Superman probably wouldn’t make for a very interesting film. Superman’s power is not in his ability to speak radically in a way that moves an agenda of radical subversion against an oppressive empire. He punches stuff. And flies. And cuts stuff with his heat vision. All of that is fantastic–I really enjoyed the film. But none of it represents the mission of Jesus. There’s no account of Jesus fighting Tiberius through the streets of Rome (the Colosseum didn’t exist yet) which, I must admit, would’ve been badass.

The hope that Jesus brings is salvation from the oppressive force brought upon the poor, the weak, the widowed, the orphaned, the sick by the powers of the world–the Roman empire and all those in service to it. And he does this through a radically nonviolent means of subversion to the point of his death. This is the fuller, deeper meaning of the hope of salvation. The moment we begin to compare Superman and Jesus in this respect, the parallel falls apart.