Saying Grace: Paula Deen, Progressives, and Race

I am sure that it had to be hard for them. After all, it was clear that they were going to have to explain to their African American professor why going to Brixton was so uncomfortable. I had seen that look many times before. The search for the right words; the really right words that would convince both the teacher and their peers that their reactions were normal. I felt for them in that moment–knowing that they were facing a fear worse than being in Brixton–the fear of being perceived as a racist. They knew that if they said the wrong thing; used the wrong metaphor; emphasized the wrong syllable they would be marked forever, with the scarlet R that would make them outcasts–at least in our study abroad program. I wish I could have told them it was ok. I wish I could have told them to ‘be you’ and we will talk it out, interrogate it, and leave you to work it out. But I knew that if this ‘so-called’ group of ‘cool and informed college kids’ heard anything that sounded like an excuse based on race, these two students would be forever ostracized.

Now according to the party line, I was supposed to jump down these two students throats and explain to them the facts of historical racism and how they had been cultivated to fear anything with a skin color deeper than olive. I was supposed to hold up my fist, label them hate mongers; Fox Television disciples; and cast them into the utter darkness of a C- (these days anything below a B is considered the kiss of death amongst our grade sensitive co-eds). But I didn’t and I won’t.

When it comes to discussing race, progressives have little tolerance for intolerance–past or present. We throw labels around as easily as the Pharisees threw stones at adulterous women. How dare someone not have OUR enlightened view on the world!  How dare they not have been born with the innate view of justice, righteousness, and soul that we have!

So when Paula Deen’s transcript was leaked to the press last week, the script was already in place. The media would report that she used the “N” word–everybody would gasp–then the outrage would begin. She would be crucified by the New York Times, Facebook pundits, and of course, her fellow chefs. She would be tried by the court of public opinion who would judge her entire life’s work and character by the use of the “N” word in a private conversation. RACIST! we would yell. She would cry. Her business would be destroyed and progressives would declare victory.

Yet, here is the reality: Deen told the truth about her past. Knowing everything: her empire, her contracts, and sponsorships were at stake–she told the truth. She was more honest under oath than at least 3 US Presidents, several dozen Catholic, Methodist, Baptist, and Non-Denominational preachers and countless business leaders. Unlike the Pope, Joe Paterno, or Donald Trump, she acknowledged she hadn’t always gotten it right but that she and her company was committed to doing it better and were doing better.

Let’s get this straight. I am not condoning anyone calling me or anyone who looks like me by any racial slur. But neither am I going to kill someone’s career because they admit that they have in anger, fear, or IN THE PAST have used one. Here it is in a nutshell–Paula Deen has used the N word. She has either told or listened to racial jokes. She has probably said stuff and joked about stuff that went over the line. So here is the dilemma my oh so righteous progressive friends–any one who hasn’t–please step right up and throw the first stone. But before you reach down to pick it up, you better check YouTube; your best friend’s IPHONE; your high school squeeze’s slam book; or your grandma’s video tapes before you do.

Progressives Christians love to talk about grace except when they have to extend it to someone who has offended their political reality. The grace that we proclaim that washes us clean and entitled us to a new life is for everybody as long as they have not offended our politics. A cursory look at the progressive schizophrenic (and hypocritical) view of who deserves grace bears this out. Anthony Weiner shows his weiner to someone other than his wife–Grace abounds. My beloved Bill Clinton gets a handy j in the oval office–Grace abounds. Barney Frank shacks up with a male prostitute–Grace Abounds. President Obama–doesn’t close Gitmo; listens to our conversations; and uses drones to kill civilians–Grace Abounds. A woman uses the N word  AND admits it knowing that a great portion of her clientele is African American (I’d say Paula probably has used it more than that)–our verdict: Off with her head, her show, and her ham.

What really angers me is the fact that most of the people really tripping about Deen’s past are from the North. That’s not to say that Southern African Americans are passive about the use of racial slurs but we are also aware of the reality that mindsets don’t all change at the same pace and that if we judged every white southerner over the age of 50 by what they said in the past, we could never buy a car; house, or eat in a Waffle House ever again. Perhaps the reason that much of the civil rights establishment, the men and women who got their heads beat in on the regular, have not condemned Paula Deen is because they know the complexity of the human heart on matters of race. Moreover, they are also aware that someone’s past doesn’t predict their present. Perhaps they remembered that the same George Wallace that stood in the door at the University of Alabama saying that Blacks would never be welcomed, returned in 1985 to the campus to crown and kiss that year’s Black Homecoming Queen, my sorority sister Deidra Chestang at a time when our campus was threatening to boil over in racial turmoil. That kiss silenced the bigots that day and his words begged all of us to embrace a new South. Though we lost that game to Vanderbilt, that kiss symbolized the magnificent change that God’s grace can make in a man’s heart. Many African Americans are standing by Deen, especially those that through the years she has launched into business because they are judging her actions as well as her words.

The South, which houses the largest concentration of African American wealth, politicians, PhD’s, doctors, lawyers, and yes, even the most Division I head coaches in the 8 time BCS juggernaut SEC– is no longer the black and white film of Eyes on the Prize. It ain’t perfect. God knows it isn’t. Racism still exists in the South–as it does in the North, as it does in the East, as it does in the West. It still exists because people are not perfect. It exists because fear is far more comfortable than love. Yet a whole region of people should not be condemn because of its past and neither should a person.

The students struggled with their words–but in the end they learned. More importantly for all of us, their classmates were willing to love them through the process of naming their fear; embracing their root; and challenging them to find a new way of being. At the end of a very tense yet powerful discussion, one student said, “ well all we can say to this moment is–AMEN.” Indeed, Amen.

 

 

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About Maria Dixon Hall

The Rev. Dr. Maria Dixon Hall is an associate professor of organizational communication/Non-Profit studies at Southern Methodist University and a commissioned deacon of the North Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church


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