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Bernard: Regarding Race

Every summer, my husband, daughters and I travel to Mississippi to see my mother’s family - and to eat. Food is a passion my black southern relatives and Italian husband share.

During this year’s trip, my aunt talked about her fondness for Paula Deen whom, at that point, I hadn’t even heard of. We returned to Vermont the day the scandal broke. I called my aunt.

Having lived her entire life in the Deep South, my aunt was not surprised that Deen had used the “N Word” and had fantasized about an antebellum wedding with an all-black wait staff. If Paula Deen became host of another cooking show, my aunt says she would watch it; her feelings about Deen haven’t really changed. My cousin, equally nonplussed, still plans to buy Deen’s cookbook.

There is a large part of me that, initially, shrugged at the accusations against Paula Deen (although the allegations of outrageous instances of racial harassment being attributed to her brother Bubba are a different matter altogether).

That same part of me cringed with pity and embarrassment as I watched her on the “Today” show as she cried and begged to be stoned and Matt Lauer pointed his Puritanical finger at her.

It’s not that the allegations against Paula Deen don’t matter to my aunt or me. Nor does either of us plan to join the Facebook pages or Twitter conversations that have sprouted up to voice support for Deen.

But I think we’re like other black southerners who have complicated, ambivalent responses to the Deen scandal, if for no other reason than that she is someone we simply and deeply recognize.

As a southerner, I watched the “Today Show” interview as a bit of American theater, with Deen as the histrionic, displaced matriarch of the post-bellum South and Lauer as a one-man “War of Northern Aggression.” When Deen conceded that she had “sinned,” I was struck by the way this scandal is taking place on two levels: first in the world of the law, with its flat, antiseptic language; and then in the world of emotion, where religious terms like “sin” and “redemption” are bandied about. Deen’s greatest sin is, for many people, that she used the N Word - and worse, that she guilelessly - perhaps even glibly - reported that she had used the N Word under oath. Considering all of the allegations against Dean, it makes sense to me that her corporate sponsors have cut her loose. But my Mississippi aunt doesn’t necessarily agree, not on a personal level. If she broke ties with every person or corporation that harbored racial attitudes like Dean’s, she told me, she wouldn’t be able to go anywhere or eat anything.

Emily Bernard is an associate professor of English and U. S. ALANA Ethnic Studies at UVM. Her essays have been published in the American Scholar, Best American Essays, Best African American Essays, and Best of Creative Non-Fiction.
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