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.


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.