Culture and Justice: Or Why Paula Deen Shouldn’t Use the “N” Word

Culture and Justice: Or Why Paula Deen Shouldn’t Use the “N” Word July 17, 2013

I feel sorry for Paula Deen.  She’s lost her job, her endorsements, her status in our society (for now), and all for saying words that were an almost thoughtless reality of her culture  during much of her life.  She’s probably wondering when folks changed the rules.   How something “everyone says” could destroy her career.


I can empathize with Paula because I care a lot about culture.  During grad school, my advisor told me I was a cultural phenomenologist.  Too bad I still don’t totally know what that means!

What I think it means, is trying to understand how cultures see or create meaning.  In other words, behavior that looks crazy to folks outside of a culture makes total sense within a culture.  So segregation between men and women in Saudi Arabia, accompanied by women clad in black abayas and hijabs, doesn’t just make sense there, but also helps the fabric of society rub against itself smoothly.  Because they make sense of culture, anthropologists and sociologists are often accused of “going native” when they study groups, especially groups with aberrant behavior (like gangs, the Ku Klux Klan, and the urban underclass).

When you get close enough to understand the context of a culture, the behaviors, roles, and activities begin to make sense.  In fact, they can even begin to look like the exact behaviors needed for survival.

But just because cultural behaviors make sense doesn’t mean there’s justice.

Just because everyone does it, just because it feels normal, just because “it doesn’t hurt anyone” doesn’t mean it’s right.  And too often we can’t see in our own culture how our behavior has implications for another group–especially a group with less power.

When I considered going to Saudi Arabia, several women friends had strong reactions, one even blanched at the thought.  They said they wouldn’t visit a culture where women wore abayas, lived segregated lives from men, and couldn’t drive or walk outside without a male relative accompanying them.

While I felt nervous about going—mostly afraid that I’d do something wrong or that Scott would die of a massive brain hemorrhage stranding me in the country—it didn’t really bother me to wear either an abaya or a hijab, or even to stand in separate lines than men at the shawarma shop.  Those social rules came from the culture, and cultures generally make sense within themselves.  So my philosophy is when in Rome, do as the Romans do!  I always want to eat the native food, hear the native stories and if necessary, wear the native clothing.

But it seemed pretty clear to me that no matter how Saudis make sense of their culture, no matter how functional the culture may work within their context, women lack justice in that country.

So while I feel sorry for Paula for getting blind-sided by the shifts in American culture, while I might miss her out-of-control recipes on Food Network, I’m glad she got caught and that there are real consequences.

Because even though cultures feel comfortable and fun, our country and people need justice.

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