Stop Expecting Paula Deen to be Racist Due To She’s Southern

The Food Network personality admitted to — and, on Friday, apologized for — using a racial slur in a deposition for the lawsuit filed by one of her former employees. So the Internet is not surprised Paula Deen is racist.

And what’s more, despite the fact that the Food Network has decided not to renew her contract at the end of the month, her company’s publicist has defended her, saying: “During a deposition where she swore to tell the truth, Ms. Deen recounted having used a racial epithet in the past, speaking largely about a time in American history which was quite different than today. She was born 60 years ago when America’s South had schools that were segregated, different bathrooms, different restaurants and Americans rode in different parts of the bus. This is not today. To be clear Ms. Deen does not find acceptable the use of this term under any circumstance by anyone nor condone any form of racism or discrimination.”

Now, in her deposition, Deen clearly wasn’t talking about an incident 60 years back, and the defense is most definitely weak. I’ve lived in the South all my life (North Carolina and Georgia), and this is exactly the kind of excuse I’ve become far too accustomed to hearing. “I learned it from my parents,” “That’s just how my family talks,” “That’s just how I was taught.” The more you age, and the more progressive society becomes, the more these excuses become, well, inexcusable.

But what does surprise me is how blasé the Internet has been about Deen’s statements. They take the same attitude as her rep: She’s an old lady from the South — what did you expect? Business Week even calls Deen’s racial epithet and “old-south slur,” as if people outside of the South have never heard the n-word. She’s an old Southern lady with a cooking show about fatty foods — this stuff practically writes itself, right? Throw in some Southern slang and a couple wordplays on deep-fried, and you’ve got yourself a pretty little cultural critique.

Yes, the South has a lot of problems with race. But just because the racism here looks different than the racism in other places doesn’t mean it’s “worse” or “bigger.” It’s complex, it’s deeply rooted and it’s ever-present, but it’s not quantifiable. My high school’s mascot was the “Rebels” — for the confederate rebels. Almost ever year, there was a discussion as to whether we should have been renamed. I’m even related to a few people who are shameless racists. But to focus only on these facts is to ignore my friends and neighbors who protest confederate monuments to the Civil War and my accepting, okra-loving, banjo-playing relatives.

To focus on only the South as racist is also to ignore the systemic racism in the North. I hate these kinds of statements, not because they’re entirely untrue, but because they allow for complacency. They give people a scapegoat so they don’t have to look at the problems at their own back doors. What’s worse is they keep expectations low so people like Deen can sit back on the excuse that she’s an older white woman from the South and people will accept it. They’ll rail against racism and they’ll make jokes, but what they don’t realize is that they’re just like Paula Deen — stuck in a world that, for them, will never change.