Why Paula Deen Matters and Westboro Baptist Doesn't

Everyone hates the Westboro Baptist Church. Even Westboro progeny hates the Westboro Baptist Church. For those of us who advocate for civil rights – and in particular, marriage rights – the Westboro Baptist Church is an easy target. They are the undisputed leaders in bigotry. They make even Michele Bachmann look sane, and that is the problem.

Whatever you think of Paula Deen’s cooking, she is the symbol of the genteel South. Her public demeanor is as sweet as her pecan pie. But, she admits to using the “n” word in the past and she admitted to once dreaming of planning a plantation style wedding – where the all black staff would be forced to dress like slaves.

Many followers – some of whom are liberals – argue that Paula Deen is a relic of years past. She is a product of her time and of her upbringing. While that might be partly true, Paula Deen is also a business woman in the very modern entertainment industry. She might not have known better when she was 12 or even 30, but she certainly knows better now.

But that’s beside the point. We are more forgiving of Paula Deen because her sins were subtle. She used words instead of violence.

Lawyer: What about jokes, if somebody is telling a joke that’s got —
Deen: It’s just what they are, they’re jokes.

Lawyer: Okay. Would you consider those to be using the N word in a mean way?

Deen: That’s — that’s kind of hard. Most — most jokes are about Jewish people, rednecks, black folks. Most jokes target — I don’t know. I didn’t make up the jokes, I don’t know. I can’t — I don’t know.

Lawyer: Okay.
Deen: They usually target, though a group. Gays or straights, black, redneck, you know, I just don’t know. I can’t, myself, determine what offends another person.

As offensive as that admission might be, Paula Deen has done no more than many otherwise respectable people do behind closed doors. Paula Deen doesn’t burn crosses on people’s lawns. She presumably doesn’t even make the kind of mean spirited jokes that Rush Limbaugh is paid hundreds of millions of dollars to spew. So why is she even in the same article as a hate group like the Westboro Baptist Church?

The most racist and homophobic people I’ve ever known (with the exception of a white supremacist I once interviewed) balk at the idea of racism. They vehemently deny homophobia.  Think about that for a moment. Very few people want to think of themselves as a hater.

When the Westboro Baptist Church pickets the funeral of a soldier, they make enemies of the entire country – and so they should. But as long as they are being recognized as the gold standard of homophobia, more damaging forms of homophobia slip under the radar. As long as we define racism by early 20th century standards, 21st century racism will seem virtually nonexistent.

I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t call the Westboro Baptist Church on their s***. In fact, I’ve sometimes wondered how many young LGBT people have been emboldened to come out after seeing their parents’ disgust with Westboro Baptist. Solidarity is a rarity in today’s world of extreme partisan divide. We currently seem incapable of building solidarity around or even accomplishing great achievements like the moon landing, so I guess building it around a universally despicable group of people is as good as it’s going to get. For that, I say, let’s keep sharing those Westboro Facebook memes. They’re even less controversial than Grumpy Cat.

When the Westboro Baptist Church is being hailed as the pinnacle of homophobia, those who are just squeamish about two men holding hands or those who think the lesbian couple next door shouldn’t wed because it might send a bad message to children don’t really seem that homophobic. When skin heads are seen as the true racists, those who simply use words seem respectful by comparison. When the bar for bigotry is set so low that pretty much everyone clears it, it eliminates the need for introspection.

While I understand the business decision, personally, I would rather that Paula Deen had kept her show, with a caveat. What I am hoping for is that this will be a moment of introspection for Paula Deen and for the rest of the country. Racism is tired, old and at this point, boring. Children are bullied every day with words very similar to the ones Deen has admitted using. Tragically, some have been driven to suicide for nothing more concrete than a barrage of offensive single syllable words.

It’s possible that Deen isn’t racist in the strictest sense of the word. Maybe she doesn’t see African-American people as lesser (although the plantation themed wedding might indicate otherwise). It’s pretty clear, though, that she does see African-American people as ‘others.’ Separate but (hopefully) equal.

In the 80s, we had a national conversation about respect as it pertains to language. The result was called political correctness. I’ll admit, it went overboard in certain circumstances, but the backlash to it seems to be putting us further back than where we started. Instead of settling on a happy medium, many decided that it is a worse sin to demand to be spoken to with respect than it is to be disrespectful. People have taken it upon themselves to decide what should be offensive to others and what shouldn’t be. “They are just words,” people say. “You shouldn’t let words have so much power over you.”

Perhaps I’m biased as a writer, but words are the most powerful tool available to humankind. While they don’t literally kill, they drive people to kill.

The majority of what we call real racism has been legislated out of existence. African-Americans are full citizens under the law. Hate crime laws have turned what was relatively acceptable and overlooked behavior (especially in the South) into criminal acts. Once something becomes illegal, it becomes a line that most won’t cross. However, there is still legal racism. Some of that comes in the form of words. Social media sites and blog comment sections are filled with vile names and full-blown defenses of their use.

Since the Paula Deen story broke, I’ve seen more people defending the use of the “n” word than owning up to the fact that white people and black people still live in very different worlds. While most forms of overt discrimination are illegal, white privilege is very real. A black person is far more likely to be arrested, far more likely to be convicted and far more likely to serve a long prison sentence than a white person who commits the same crime. Very recently, an unemployed black woman began submitting her resume as a white woman. The difference in responses was eye-opening.

Is the “n” word the cause of still-existing racism? No. It’s a symptom. I can’t begin to imagine what it’s like growing up African-American in a white dominated society. That’s why I’m not even going to address the fact that some rappers use the word. It would be presumptuous. What I can say with complete confidence is that when a white person uses the word, they might not be demonstrating hatred, but they are showing that they see dark skin rather than an equal human being.

Deen has apologized – sort of. She’s sorry for all the people she’s hurt but she only used it that one time. She’s not a racist. Blah blah blah. The apology I would really love to hear might go something like this: “Yes, I have said that word. I was thoughtless. I never thought of myself as racist, but maybe if I really think about it, there is a grain of truth, as there probably is with most people. I will vow in the future to be more thoughtful. I will also make sure that that ugly word is never again used in my presence.” Perhaps then, the country could join her in a moment of introspection. I won’t be counting my deep fried chickens though.


Wendy Gittleson grew up in a political family. Her passion is for social justice and fairness. She lives in a union household. In her rare downtime, you’ll find her hiking or exploring the shoreline with her dogs. Follow her on her Facebook page, on her Facebook blog page or on Twitter, @wendygittleson

Author: The Blue Route

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