On outrage, racism, and Paula Deen

By Kira Dault| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
blog Politics Social Justice

This morning I was listening to NPR and I heard (yet another) story about Paula Deen's crumbling empire.

This time, Walmart has decided that they will no longer carry Paula Deen cookware. Walmart joins a growing list of companies that are deciding to sever ties with the home-cooking superstar over her use of a racial slur. (OK, it wasn't just a racial slur. It was the racial slur.) However, the alleged use of the racial slur happened somewhere around twenty years ago. The media coverage of Paula Deen's offensive language has been insatiable. USA Today even asked: "Did Paula Deen win you over?" in a survey on their website. (You can't see the results when you vote, but you can tweet your answer to the question.)

The problem with all of the coverage of the Paula Deen scandal, however, is that it essentially boils down to gossip. There is a great deal of speculation about what happened, and when? Is Paula Deen a racist? How shall we punish her?

And it feels so good to make a villain out the woman who is famous for telling us that it's okay to put another stick of butter in our mac and cheese. That's the thing about gossip: It feels really good.

But at the end of the day, the outrage pointed at Deen, while it may be justified, is counter-productive. (I myself am not in a position to say with any degree of certainty whether or not Paula Deen is a racist. Furthermore, I think to ask the question misses the point entirely.) Paula Deen is the most recent person to be caught up in the vicious cycle of celebrity gossip. Because she is a celebrity, her sins are public and get disproportional attention.

The real problem, though, as I see it is that the coverage of Paula Deen's rhetorical mishap is taking the place of real outrage that should be directed at unjust systems that (wrongly) declare systemic racism a thing of the past.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court issued a decision that gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Almost immediately, the state of Texas announced that it would be moving forward with a voter ID law and a redistricting law that had been rejected by the federal government as being "intentionally discriminatory." Similar moves are expected to take place in North Carolina and Mississippi.

Meanwhile, Walmart looks righteous by severing ties with Paula Deen, but they continue to fight any and all efforts to require companies to pay a living wage to their employees.

These are injustices that matter. It's not that Paula Deen's use of racial slurs does not matter - she almost certainly has some amends to make. But while we are consuming the gossip like chocolate silk pie, our legislators are failing to protect those people that Paula Deen would have offended in the first place.  Racism is not exclusively about individuals who use racial slurs, and firing Paula Deen will not actually solve any of the problems that we still have with racism in this country.

Instead of getting mad at Paula Deen, we ought to resist the urge to gossip and move on. Then, we should get on the phone to our representatives in Congress and tell them that protecting the disenfranchised, the poor, and the homeless is what will get them access to our votes.

Image: Photo by Janine cc via Wikimedia Commons