Monday, September 9, 2013

On Paula Deen

Let me start this off with an unequivocal statement: Racism is NOT ok.  Attitudes and behavior embodying the belief that a person is in any way lesser based on race or ethnicity are great injustices.  My son (my own adorable, chubby cheeked, delightful son) is Mexican.  The first time someone discerns that in his face and treats him as anything less wonderful than a human being, I will want to wrap my loving mother fingers around that person's neck and squeeze. It's not ok.  Not toward my family, not toward your employee, not toward the person with whom you cross paths on the street.  Not ok. 

That said, I feel pretty deeply disturbed by what has happened with Paula Deen this summer, and it's not because my favorite butter beating maven used racist language in the past. (Disclaimer: She's not really my favorite.  I've never seen an episode of her show.  I've never met her.  I certainly don't know all of the details of this case.)  As it has been reported, the facts are these: In a deposition for a lawsuit filed by a former employee alleging racism and sexual harassment at a restaurant Deen co-owns, Paula admitted to using the N-word during extreme situations in the past, "but it's been a very long time."  The fall-out has been a loss of millions of dollars in business deals as sponsors and partners reacted to her admission.  Now you can analyze this set of facts a dozen ways and speculate all you want (Has it really been a long time, or is Deen just saying that? Is the employee simply out to make her millions, or is the suit legit? etc.) but none of those questions gets at the heart of what has me so worked up.  I'll try to explain.

Dr. Martin Luther King had a dream that one day his children would be judged by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin.  I love that.  I love the idea that we have agency in determining who we turn out to be and that our reward or punishment derives from our own merits rather than appearance.  That's both powerful and beautiful.  Here's the part I'm uncomfortable with: the way society judges as we seek to create a culture of greater equality.  Most of what I have seen and read in social reaction to Deen's deposition is downright venomous and hateful.  Rather than an attack on behavior, it's largely been an attack on the worth of a human being.  The sentiment is "See, we knew her appearance was too good to be true!  What an awful person she is."  It feels like jealous little girls pettily triumphant at discovering a weakness in the popular girl at school and using it to ruin her.  I'm disturbed that we want to focus on a person's weakness to the point of obliterating any notion of their goodness.  May I share with you an inconvenient truth?  (My grandfather just rolled in his grave to hear me sharing language with Al Gore...)  A person can be a decent, kind, funny, AND a racist.  A person can be honest, hard-working, charming, AND a homophobe.  A person can be compassionate, wise, healthy, AND hate all 14 million Mormons.  A person can be artistic, brilliant, insightful, AND mean to kittens. OK?  I said it.  We human beings are mixed bags, every single one. 

As we strive to evolve our culture into one of greater kindness, acceptance and compassion, shouldn't our response to someone who violates our ideal be more along the lines of, "Look, there is something about yourself that you will need to change.  We love you.  You can do it."  I believe that in any other reaction, we simply become the thing (intolerance) we claim to hate.    To the degree that Paula has repented of her former racist language and attitudes, let it go.  To the degree that she has not, help her see the better way and support her as she follows it.  If she refuses?  Love her anyway.  Appreciate the good.  Gently correct the bad.  Accept the place of imperfection. 

That, my friends, is tolerance. 

Alright already, tirade concluded.  Since I'm pretty sure that no one who reads this blog is also leaving hate-filled comments on online news articles, I know I'm preaching to the choir.  Sometimes I just have to say it anyway.  Happy Monday, everybody! :)