Op-ed: Ohhhh, Paula

When an n word falls alone in the woods, do you hear it?

BY Michelle Garcia

June 25 2013 7:00 AM ET

Let's say you're a white person listening to Wu-Tang Clan in the shower on any given morning in America. You're rapping along, doing your best to represent Shaolin. You know it's coming — the n word. Do you say it like another word in the song lyric like "stash," "glock," or "PCP?" Do you just skip over the word? Do you whisper it, for fear that your black neighbor four blocks down might hear you and report you to the NAACP?

I think this is really the kernel of what this whole Paula Deen thing is about — at what point does one lose their license to be racist in the privacy of their own home?

We've heard the talk about Paula Deen using n words at home, when talking to coworkers or her seemingly creepy brother Bubba, and you know, when telling racist jokes. It's casual. She's from Georgia. It's just in the blood, apparently. I wouldn't understand, I'm one of those horrible New York/California people. Also, I'm black.

Paula Deen, my mutual lover of all things butter, had some racist things to say about staging a pre-Civil War-style wedding with all black waiters for her brother. Actually, the woman suing Paula and her brother remembers the chef saying, “Well what I would really like is a bunch of little n----rs to wear long-sleeve white shirts, black shorts, and black bow ties, you know in the Shirley Temple days, they used to tap dance around.”

I wonder, when she received that subpoena, did she think, Gosh, why can't these n----rs take a joke?

In my house, the n word is a slur. Period. No matter who says it. Just like lots of us LGBT people don't use the f word, and many take umbrage at the word "queer." And I'm not the only black person in America who doesn't use the n word. Lots of us don't, so please don't let the rap music fool you. I'm more prone to listen to Billy Joel than Lil Wayne — besides, they've probably spent similar amounts of time in the pokey.

Right before high school, our family ditched my incredibly diverse hometown of Queens, N.Y., for the burbs, where I ended up going to an an all-white high school. Like, 4,000 white kids and probably 15 "others," including me, that represented every other shade of brown. At this school, if you were Sicilian-Italian, you might as well have been Kenyan. For the most part, people were pretty cool with me — well, aside from people in gym class assuming I played tennis well because I "looked like" Venus Williams, being told I talked too well to be black, and being called Predator because of my braids. But one (other) particular moment stuck with me.

Two years after Chris Rock's earth-shattering Bring the Pain stand-up special, people were still talking about his joke about the differences between black people and n----rs. Thank you so much, Chris Rock, for surrounding me with 14-year-old white kids who assumed license to use the n word. You know, for the sake of comedy!

I didn't really know how to react. There were 4,000 — well, 3,988 of them, and one of me. So I did nothing. Just uncomfortably chuckled and grinned, quickly changing the subject to S-Club 7 or Monica Lewinsky or something.

I've always had a gut feeling of discomfort, a sense of regressiveness, every time I hear the n word, the f word, or its cousin, "That's so gay." Are people really so ignorant that they don't see why it's wrong to use these words, with very extreme exceptions? Are people so unimaginative that they resort to the lowest common denominator in the English language — hateful slurs that pack incredible wallops of historical, institutionalized, legal hatred? Literally centuries of enslavement, and burning LGBT people at the stake. That's where these slurs come from. Screw "I'm taking that word back." I'm leaving them where they belong, the gutters of history.

It's all a shame because I have been a fan of Paula Deen. I like her big hair and twangy accent. I like the fact that her eyeliner looks like it was drawn on at a stoplight on the way to work that morning. I love the way she says "oil" and that she is known for her affinity for butter. Her rise from a depressed survivor of domestic abuse to a businesswoman who pursued her passion for deep-fried everything is absolutely inspiring.

And even though she supports our black president, Paula Deen has used the n word. Multiple times. Around, and concerning, employees, and another time maybe to confront a bank robber. (OK, that's just gutsy.)

But people have come out in droves to support Paula, wrapping themselves around the block to get into her Savannah restaurant, The Lady & Sons. I've even noticed an uptick of her recipes repinned on Pinterest. I think it's because a lot of people see themselves in Paula's situation. We have all said or thought racist things before, whether we know it or not. The problem is that common sense isn't common, so those people are currently shaking in their boots. They used to toss the f word around at work all the time, and now they just can't? Why can't those f-----ts just take a joke, right?

I don't think Paula Deen is malicious or hateful. Her awkward apology seemed fairly genuine. But her ignorance is disappointing, and her Southern-fried self-defense is tacky. Deen may be an old Southern broad, but she's not dumb. She and everyone else below the Mason-Dixon needs to stop hiding behind the old ways of Old Dixie. And we have to stop pretending the South is the only place that racism still lives on.

Clearly, we're not doing a great job with whether or not it's OK to use the n word. Hopefully, as soon as this year, we might get a do-over when the Employment Non-Discrimination Act becomes law of the land, declaring that you can't call your employee the f word and then fire him for who he goes home to at night.
 

MICHELLE GARCIA is The Advocate's commentary editor. Follow her at @GarciaReporting please no f or n words.

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