Butter-Baked Bigotry: Why Paula Deen’s Racism Matters

Paula Deen, whose clout exceeds her work as a chef, restaurateur, and celebrity on The Food Network, is known to be as warm in personality — with her hearty laugh and warm, southern drawl — as the rich, gooey, southern food she’s known to cook, supposedly making the air around her as light as the batter with which she proudly coats her catfish and fried chicken. With the personality Deen’s cultivated for herself, some might be surprised to find that the down-home culinary goddess, as American as she is genteel, is a racist down to her southern-fried, butter-baked core.

I was surprised when, last year, Jezebel posted an article entitled “The Ten Weirdest Allegations From Paula Deen’s Home-Cooked Racism and Sexual Harassment Complaint,” highlighting the range of offenses — from casual usage of the n-word amongst Deen and her employees to Jim Crow-style facility separation — that former employee Lisa Jackson reported during her time working at Uncle Bubba’s Seafood and Oyster House in Savannah, Georgia. When I heard, this week, that she had frivolously joked about wanting to have an all-black staff of waiters dressed in white as slaves, I was miffed (and still admittedly a bit surprised) not just about Deen’s racism, which now seemed more like fact than rumor, but about her popularity, which has hardly seemed to wane in the face of these criticisms. Apart from the $1.2 million lawsuit resulting from the allegations, she’s doing just fine, with guest spots on Gordon Ramsey’s MasterChef, and her own show, Paula’s Best Dishes, airing daily on Food Network.

How is it that Deen, the staunch conservative and bigot that she is, remains a symbol of the kinds of goodhearted American values that seem so firmly rooted in the South, without a lick of mainstream criticism severe enough to permanently tarnish her reputation? Who wants biscuits baked in bigotry? And who profits off of these biscuits? Well, the answer is America, of course: it always has — we always have.

The durability of Deen’s success is undoubtedly rooted in the origin story behind her super-celebrity, carefully blending myth with reality, the perennial ethos of American exceptionalism and opportunity (which history tells us was only really available to white colonizers and settlers) merging with painstaking labor to yield hard-won success. Hers is a proverbial rags-to-riches tale. Since she was a young woman, an 18-year-old wed fresh out of high school, Paula struggled financially as well as emotionally, developing agoraphobia after the unexpected death of her father. Both of her parents passed away before she turned 23, and after 20 years of struggling financially, she divorced her husband, leaving her with two children and only $200 to her name. During this period of emotional stress and financial duress, Deen found solace in cooking, taking that $200 and putting it towards a catering service of bagged, southern-style lunches, making the poisons of her life her eventual panacea — a $20 million panacea at that, including seven restaurants, 14 cookbooks, and numerous television shows.

As Deen acknowledged in an interview with Oprah back in 2007, her story is about as American as conceivably possible, a clear example of American capitalism at its holy best; it was, as Deen says, by the grace of God that she was able to prosper.

Paula Deen might be one of the best examples of a self-made millionaire remaining culturally tied to her roots and determinedly authentic in her entrepreneurial resolves. You can see it from the way Deen’s family features so heavily in her shows to the way she frequently reminisces, mid-tutorial, about her life in the South, as if her trials were colloquial, even universal. It’s heartwarming to see a family function so harmoniously, each giving and receiving joy from the traditions they’ve built through hardships, and especially to see a mother impart to her sons the lessons traditionally reserved for women. Baking biscuits in a classically decorated ranch-style kitchen, with a lush, green lawn showered with Savannah sunshine beaming just outside the windows, there’s a relentless engine operating Deen’s brand from behind the scenes, cranking out a simple, familiar, and touching mantra: family, food, southern hospitality; America, America, America.

Given that her entire brand is built around her presentation of genteel, Southern family values, it should be alarming to Paula Deen’s fans (and all those who love old-fashioned southern cooking, like your correspondent, a West-Coast boy raised on down-home, southern-style holiday dinners) that her celebrity is so inextricably linked to a consciously suppressed, deep-seated racism. On camera, Deen has made an empire for herself by championing the lifestyle and values intrinsic to the definition of southern hospitality (a good meal for those who need it, kindness to all, an open door to any guest), yet she unabashedly eschews those values once the camera turns off. In light of this, her rapport with Oprah Winfrey — a firm supporter of Deen and her work — marked by their years-long friendship, is all the more dubious.

What becomes evident is that one reason why Deen has been so successful in creating her empire is precisely because she has taken an intrinsically problematic image of America — one constructed during the seminal moments of American history when the South defined itself in political and cultural opposition to the North — and covered it over with a thin dusting of Old Bay. By marketing herself as a devout southern queen and a woman modern and savvy enough to hang with the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Gayle King — two successful, self-made black female business moguls — she was able to take the appeal of the South (and the stereotypes it so often faces, chiefly cultural anachronism) and refurbish it for a new, increasingly diversified marketplace on Food Network, while keeping her own beliefs and politics far beyond the realm of critique. She was able to present southern charm as something that has transcended the racial tensions that characterize so much of the region’s history. Well, until now.

Apart from cluing us in to the more unpalatable elements of a widely adored public figure, understanding Deen, her brand, and her empire in this way allows us to see how celebrity is manufactured, and what kinds of horrible beliefs are able to persist unchecked in the process. So, given this clear reveal of her racism, why are we still more interested in propagating popular memes about her (this one of her riding things, as well as this one about butter, are admittedly pretty funny) than challenging her racial attitudes?

I posit there is something fundamental about the constructed image of the down-home South that treats racism — along with other forms of bigotry — as an interruption of or diversion from, rather than a defining element of, its character. This certainly explains the phenomenon that was “Accidental Racist,” the Brad Paisley / LL Cool J duet that expresses a yearning for the days when the South was revered rather than derided, its people “paying for the mistakes that a lot of folks made long before we came,” as Paisley told Entertainment Weekly. If these “mistakes” of the past are anything like the mistakes Paisley made in “Accidental Racist” — like when he describes himself wearing a Confederate flag into a coffee shop, nostalgic for a past that modernity won’t let him claim — then perhaps his, as well as Paula Deen’s, brand of casual, misguided racism could be excused. But when you acknowledge that the South, as it is and as it is remembered, along with the rest of America, was built off of slavery, forced segregation, and the genocide of blacks, this innocent, sun-drenched image hardly holds up.

Especially within the United States, the ideas we attribute to an idealized ethos, culture, era, or region — like the hospitable South — often possess explicit racial subtexts. The problem doesn’t lie with what the South is or purports to be in 2013, but rather with the way in which celebrities like Paula Deen deploy a seemingly welcoming idea of the South to cover up a much more insidious, underlying racism that isn’t entirely unconnected to the image they’re selling. This is what makes Deen’s bigotry so nefarious.