The Nuance of Prejudice: Why Paula Deen’s Racism Terrifies Us

With such strong allegations against Paula Deen, and in light of her own botched attempts at an apology, it’s hard to believe that anyone would not consider her decisions racist. In addition to using a racial slur which is itself a product of centuries of hatred and abuse against African Americans, Deen is condemned by the wedding she attempted to plan and a history of making racially insensitive remarks.

Yet, despite all the evidence of Deen’s racism, the majority of participants in a recent poll maintained that Deen is not, in fact, racist.

Those who defend Deen have maintained that she simply slipped up and shouldn’t lose her career for using one offensive word. Of course, there’s much more to the story than that. And perhaps telling a man that nobody could see him if he stood near a blackboard could be seen as a thoughtless remark. But it takes some strong racism to plan a plantation-style wedding that demeans black male waiters, in a tribute to slavery and Jim Crow era traditions.

So why do so many Americans insist on defending her?

When popular culture excuses deplorable behavior, it’s tempting to dismiss the reaction as ignorance, but I think there’s something deeper at play here. I don’t think very many Americans want to see Deen as racist. It’s the same issue that prevented reporters from recognizing the grave crime committed by the Steubenville rapists. After all, who wants to see a seventeen-year-old athlete as a rapist?

Learning that someone we love and admire has done something cruel can be terrifying. Perhaps we wonder if we’re guilty by association, if enjoying Chris Brown’s music is akin to supporting domestic violence, or if watching The Pianist means we’re supporting a rapist. And sometimes that question of guilt by association is so terrifying that we simply refuse to see the individual’s guilt.

But here’s why I think that fear is misplaced: it’s based on a false binary of good people and bad people. If we believe in that false binary, we believe that there are good people and then there are racist people, and so holding Paula Deen accountable for racist remarks seems like admitting that she’s a 100% bad person. That all her charisma and charm and any good work she’s done in her life cease to carry weight in the grand scheme of things.

And if we see the world through that binary, isn’t it hard to look at 17-year-old rapists and admit what they’ve done? Nobody wants to take someone so young and label them as evil.

So that false binary is precisely what we need to move away from. Moving away from this binary can be frightening. It’s frightening to admit that people who do cruel things have good in them too and that people who do good things also have moments when they say and do something cruel. It’s frightening because it means admitting that despite God’s promise that we’ll be able to tell good from evil, the tool of discernment is usually less like a GPS and more like a compass.

Using a compass takes practice.

And it’s frightening because it means accepting the truth when you learn that someone in your ward abuses their family, or when you learn that a famous church member is involved in a tax evasion scandal, or that the Church sometimes make cost-effective decisions that nevertheless hurt those it employs.

But seeing the nuance in people and organizations also means seeing the truth. It means learning to be flexible when winds of doubt or anger pummel you, so that you don’t break. And – perhaps best of all – it means finding beauty in even tragic circumstances.



  • oldsgm

    I find it interesting that you call Paula Deen a racist for using the same word that is used daily in the black culture. Are you also going to call any black person who uses that same term a racist or is it okay as long as it is black on black name calling. What about those who call whites “cracker”, are you going to call them racist also.

    As you said:

    “So why do so many Americans insist on defending her? When popular culture excuses deplorable behavior, it’s tempting to dismiss the reaction as ignorance, but I think there’s something deeper at play here. I don’t think very many Americans want to see Deen as racist ”

    It may be that others see the double standard in society today where one group of people are held to different standard because of their skin color. If you want to look at a popular culture that excuses deplorable behavior, I suggest you look at the Rap and Gangsta culture, go and visit their websites and listen to their music.

    You seem to imply that anyone who doesn’t see her as racist is a racist themselves. Other may see what you write as someone so consumed with white guilt, that they fail to see the inequity in the treatment of what public figures may about being based on the skin color of whoever is saying it.

    Paula Deen is a product of her times, just as the current members of the Gangsta and Rap community are. I don’t see her as any more of a racist than the members of the black community who call folks whitey’s and crackers.

    Both are wrong, but only one gets singled out. I would say that is racist on the part of the media.

    While your points in the later part of your talk were on point as I see it, your analogy of using Paula Deen was off the mark in my opinion.

    • Vision_From_Afar

      What I can’t understand is the constant attempts to deflect this argument. Black culture’s attempts to reclaim or re-pattern the usage of a word that used to be an insult is entirely beside the point. Paula is not black. She is not/was not in black culture’s sphere, and she was not using it in the same manner. There have been many cultures in history (especially in America) that have taken a slur and turned it into a badge of pride.

      Historically, look at the Irish. They used to be on the bottom rungs of society, hated and abused. Now we have bigger St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in America than they do in Ireland. The modern Pagan movement is another example. The problem is, as the author pointed out, intent behind the usage. Paula was not using it with the same intent and context as black culture is, plain and simple.

      “Rap and Gangsta” culture have “public figures” only within their own context. What insulting and racist things they say are not within the same sphere of influence as Paula did. She ran a restaurant that employed and served multiple races. She operated on a much bigger stage than those who chose to exist entirely within their own subculture.

      Both are wrong, but trying to equate the two is a sad attempt at a red herring.

      • oldsgm

        You seem to miss the point that I was making that both parties in this case are products of the times that they live in, and if it is okay for members of one race to use a word, why isn’t alright for another to do the same. No red herring here, just wondering why equality doesn’t apply to both races in this case. I would wager that the rap and gangsta is culture is far more pervasive in America today than Paula Deen ever was. However, if playing the “white guilt” card is what helps you justify bashing a old woman as a racist because of words that were said years ago then so be it.

  • Tracy Stott

    As the author suggested, Deen’s use of the N-word is
    symptomatic of a deeper, systematic racism.

    By focusing on the N-word, one looses sight of a bigger
    picture. The gist of the article is examining our own biased binary, polarized
    thought and conditioning. We have great difficulty in seeing someone we idolize
    as having any negative traits. In becoming more objective, we can notice and
    accept nuances — which allows us to grow and have a much more enriched

    One aspect of the Deen Debacle that isn’t often mentioned is
    the influence of the media and how it helps to polarize thought and accentuate
    and inflame biases. It’s a complex circus that often leaves us stunted and
    prone to further binary thought, in the end.

    Great article. Thanks!