The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

August 5, 2013

Deen controversy proves there’s still work to be done

Commentary By Adam Smith

— What makes a person a racist? It’s a question I’ve asked myself in the days and weeks since Paula Deen’s life publicly imploded.

To be honest, I’ve never been a huge fan of Deen’s. In the realm of great Southern cooks, she can’t hold a candle to my own mother. Plus, I feel as though she probably exaggerates her accent and plays up the “Hee-Haw” personality to appeal to people who just don’t know any better.

But that’s neither here nor there, and in no way do the following words and paragraphs seek to come to Deen’s defense.

Despite my own issues with Deen, it doesn’t answer the question in everyone’s mind, especially my own. Does her admitted use of the poisonous, profane and toxic “n-word” make her a racist?

The conclusion I’ve come to is, I don’t know if she’s a racist. I can’t judge her as a racist because I don’t know what’s really in her heart. That goes for every other person in the world who has deemed her a racist.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream was that people should be judged “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Does use of the word give Americans’ carte blanche to determine Deen’s character is one of a racist because she used the word?

When I picture what a racist looks like, it certainly doesn’t look like Deen. When I think about history’s most noted racists, I picture Adolf Hitler, Gen. George Custer, Slobodan Milosevic and anyone wearing a white sheet and pointy hat with an affinity for cross-burning.

I don’t know if Deen’s a racist. It’s not my place to judge her or anyone else for that matter. All that gets sorted out in the end.

I do, however, think Deen is either a big idiot or a brave idiot. I haven’t decided which yet.

She’s (a) an idiot for using the word in the first place; (b) an idiot for admitting to have used the word; and (c) a brave idiot because she did tell the truth under oath, which is what we’re all told to do. Either she wasn’t aware that her admission would cause her massive kingdom to crumble or she didn’t care. Maybe she thought she was too famous and powerful to be affected by the admission. Or perhaps it’s a combination of the three.

Growing up in the South, it’s a word I’ve heard more than a few times, sadly. We know how it’s pronounced, how it’s spelled and that it may be the most hurtful six-letter word in existence. However, I could watch two performances by Chris Rock and the late Richard Pryor — both extremely talented and funny stand-up comedians – and hear the offending word used casually more times than I ever heard it on an elementary school playground.

And there lies a hypocritical duality with the word itself. If we are quick to judge a Caucasian as a racist for using the word, do we then judge African-Americans for using the same word? It’s one of those scenarios that’s impossible for Caucasians to wrap their minds around, much like the “magic bullet” theory or Chinese algebra.

From what I’ve seen and read, African-Americans have been strangely quiet and often forgiving when it comes to Deen’s case. The rush to judgment to label Deen as a hate-hearted racist has been carried out more by Caucasians.

I, like millions of other bored Americans, watched Deen’s boo-hoo fest on the “Today” show. Matt Lauer tried to pin her down on whether she was sorrier to have used the word or if she was sorrier that her use of the word resulted in the loss of millions of dollars from her corporate empire. I never heard a definitive answer.

This isn’t the first time the use of the word has brought down a person of power, and it won’t be the last. And every time the issue of racism becomes national news (see the shooting of Trayvon Martin), Americans have a bad habit of saying the same thing. “Let’s use this instance as a means to open up a dialogue between the races so we may have a better understanding of one another.”

But like a bunch of drunken college buddies planning the road trip of a lifetime, Americans are great at making plans, but horrible at following through. We’re too touchy, and we fear that starting a brutally honest dialogue will lead to more hurt feelings, anger and hatred. So, we let it go and it continues to fester and then we have another Paula Deen-type explosion.

Following Deen’s “Today” show appearance, the morning show began reading Twitter comments and feedback from those who watched. One African-American woman submitted a video to the show and basically said, “She said it, it’s over, let’s move on.”

It was a response that seemed admirable in its sentiment, but also lazy and apathetic. The “let’s move on” philosophy is dangerous. It’s the equivalent of a temporary patch on a large pothole. Eventually, the gravel will wash out and you’re left with the same pothole.

How many times will we keep filling the same pothole? We need to repave the road. Start fresh. We need that open and honest dialogue we always say we’re going to have, but never do.

To that end, I hope our local African-American leaders will take the opportunity to also weigh in on Deen’s case, the “n-word” and what we can all do to repave the road to a better understanding of one another.

As an old song goes, “the road is long with many a winding turn.” But no matter if you’re black, white, Jewish, Hispanic, Muslim, Irish, Italian or American Indian, we’ve all got to travel the same road. We should work together to repave the road, if not for us then for future generations.

— Managing editor and social commentator Adam Smith can be reached at