Paula Deen’s Apologetic ‘Today Show’ Appearance Speaks Volumes, Accomplishes Little

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At long last, Paula Deen has spoken out in response to the comments she made in a deposition that alluded to her cavalier use of racial slurs. Well, she’s spoken to a real-life human rather than a camera, and this time wasn’t able to self-edit her remarks for a YouTube apology. The celebrity cook, recently dropped from the Food Network, appeared on The Today Show this morning to chat with Matt Lauer after ditching her appearance last Friday. And what did we learn? That Paula Deen is sad and upset and feels real bad about all that happened.

The appearance is a pretty standard PR move, with Deen immediately dodging Matt Lauer’s first questions about the businesses that severed ties with her celebrity (such as Food Network and Smithfield Foods); instead, she gave a canned speech about how she was raised to treat everyone as an equal, no matter “who you choose to go to bed at night with, no matter what church you go to pray.” That has always been part of Paula Deen’s persona: the lovable Southern grandmother.

While the point is that Deen’s image has taken a major blow and that has impacted her marketability (which is why the Food Network and Smithfield Foods were right to cut ties with her, and why other entities will likely follow suit), the major issue at play in her interactions with the media is this: the definition of racism is a subjective one. Deen refuses to admit that she’s a prejudiced person — at least when “prejudice” is defined as judging someone by his or her actions, rather than racial, sexual, religious or other identity. And this confusion over what constitutes racism isn’t new, either; anyone who has grown up in the South in the last three decades, even in the most progressive households, has inherited the fallout of the region’s troubled past. It’s an uncomfortable fact that the culture in which one was raised will, despite much effort, play a certain role in one’s worldview. It’s clear that Paula Deen, a child of the segregated South, hasn’t had much opportunity to interrogate this aspect of herself. In her eyes, the world has changed and, following suit, so have she and her loved ones, because they are not openly practicing racism.

But what is important to consider is that racism has never been exclusively a Southern problem in America. Hell, it’s not even a solely American problem, although it is convenient to associate such prejudice with Paula Deen’s dialect (and, to be fair, she doesn’t help break down the stereotype of the racist Southerner, either). I’ve seen plenty of jokes on Twitter this morning about the apparent shock that people expressed after a rich, white Southern lady admitted to using the n-word; the only thing that’s truly shocking is that the admission was so cavalier. And while Paula Deen has not necessarily shown much reflection that displays an understanding of the ramifications of her comments, her downfall has at least instigated a conversation about the ingrained and systemic racism in this country, as well as opening up a discussion about the kinds of racism we tend to take for granted.

“There is a complex matrix for when you can be racist and with whom,” Roxane Gay writes at Salon. “There are ways you behave in public, and ways you behave in private. There are things you can say among friends, things you wouldn’t dare say anywhere else, that you must keep to yourself in public.” If you’re from the South, you’ll recognize this notion. It’s not rare to hear casually racist comments from your loved ones behind closed doors, where it’s “safe”; these folks would never be outwardly rude or cruel to anyone in the open — it goes against the cultural norms. Yet I don’t think this is necessarily an exclusively Southern mentality, either.

But since it’s Paula Deen who is currently the most important conversation-starter when it comes to racism in this country, it seems that again the prejudices of many across the country have been given a very specific, twangy voice. “I is what I is,” Deen admitted in a particularly rural affectation after breaking down in tears while defending herself on The Today Show. The Paula Deen we know is a persona, a figure concocted for marketing purposes, and her interview with Matt Lauer was a last-chance attempt to save that image and her commercial prospects. She does a disservice to the region and people she has come to represent, propagating the notion that the South is full of uneducated racists when, in actuality, Paula Deen is a clever person. You can’t deny that: she’s a successful entrepreneur who has made a brand for herself. But her apologies and statements don’t reflect a deeper understanding of her comments’ ramifications; by avoiding that discussion, she unintentionally passes on the blame to the regional culture that she represents, and in doing so she blocks the larger conversation about the culture she — and we, not just Southerners but all Americans — actually belongs to.