Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Fed Up with Misrepresentations of the Paula Deen Complaint, I Had to Say Something: The Sponsors Who Left Are Smart

After reading both the soft-soaping of what Paula Deen's alleged to have said and done in the workplace and the outbursts of people angry at her and after noticing that often her supporters and her detractors did not bother to read the actual complaint against Deen that Lisa T. Jackson, a white female, filed with the court, I've finally had enough. I must say something.

I mean, I suspect even Melissa Harris-Perry, whom I love, went all "WOW . . . Seriously?" before reading the complaint. If she had read the complaint, there would have been a lot more smoke coming from her ears because she seems to reserve "WOW ... Seriously?" segments for the lighter stuff. And one would think that Deen as well must not have read the complaint against her company or know that the a .pdf would become available online based on how she's handled the leak of her deposition. (Here's Lisa T. Jackson's complaint at Scribd.) 

I know I'm late with my response, so late that more than likely no one will read this post, but I decided to write it anyway after reading a well-meaning response to Deen's predicament by someone who at least acknowledges racism is a problem in America. I appreciate that acknowledgement because there's an entire group of people in the nation who pretend we've licked racism and now have nothing to fear. (Oh, yeah -- the Supreme Court comes to mind.)

Regarding the Deen case, the national media has reduced the allegations against Deen and company to the chef's use of the N-word and Deen's longing for a plantation-style wedding. People seem to think the accusations against Deen are simply that she indulged some mildly offensive stupidity and now her sponsors are overreacting. Consequently, people mistakenly think that Deen's sponsors are fleeing her side under secret pressure to be politically correct, I guess. That, however, is not the case. They are running away from support that could become a liability if they're ever accused of discrimination.

Undoubtedly, Deen's former sponsors, unlike mostly everyone else talking about this case, have read the full complaint against Deen's company. They've probably done a little digging, not liked what they've uncovered, and have wisely backed away from the imploding Ms. Deen that America's seen begging forgiveness lately on TV and YouTube: "I is what I is," she's said, digging a deeper hole for herself. How can a company claim to have a zero tolerance for workplace discrimination based on race and gender if they stand with Deen?

Unfortunately, the willingness of people of all ethnicities and political leanings that I have observed around the Net and on TV who, despite having only heard the sound-bite version of the Deen case and yet have declared that folks should let up off Deen indicates that America will keep having shallow discussion about race for many years to come. Few people have investigated the allegations that caused Deen to be deposed in the first place nor do most people care enough to scrutinize the kinds of racist practices alleged against her company and why that kind of racism persists in American culture.

After skimming only the Cliff Notes of news reports, too many people talking about the Deen case merely recall stories about the everyday racism they've witnessed or experienced in their own lives, most of which are not even close to what Deen and her company have been accused of in the lawsuit, and then they think they understand Deen's admission. They applaud her honesty about using a racial slur or wanting a plantation-style wedding and give her a pass. However, if they were paying closer attention and not having emotional or knee-jerk responses, they would know something must have gone terribly wrong at Deen's restaurants.

Look at the number of Deen sponsors who've jumped ship. You'd think more people would have stepped back and asked, "Is this case really only about use the N-word and an ignorant comment here or there?"

Given the precedence in American popular culture of white people (athletes, actors, etc.) using that word and then simply apologizing and moving on, more people should have found it strange that Deen's sponsors reacted forcefully and quickly by dropping her and her products. But no, fans of her down-home folksiness are coming out of the ethers to support her and declare she's being "scapegoated." That assumption is particularly telling of the state of race relations in America and the nation's level of critical thinking on race because the word scapegoat implies that people think Paula Deen's use of the N-word, even in the workplace, and her mooning over "the good old days" when black people were slaves is not such a bad thing for an employer to do.

Worse, proclaiming Deen to be a scapegoat suggests that people believe, without even reading the complaints in the lawsuit, that Paula Deen is telling the truth and her accuser is "evil" as Deen has described her. However, if what Jackson alleges is true, Deen is, at the very least, guilty of indifference to racist practices in her restaurants and callous about sexism that harms her female employees.

The actual complaint against Paula is not simply that Deen used the N-word once or twice and talked about a plantation wedding. Jackson alleges that Deen and her company practiced the worst kinds of racial discrimination, practices especially egregious at her brother Earl "Bubba" Hier's restaurant, Uncle Bubba's Oyster House in Savannah, Georgia.

The lawsuit alleges that upper management repeated racist jokes regularly that invoked white supremacist ideology, required black employees not use the customers' restroom while allowing white employees to do so, and refused to hire black hostesses to work out front and when one did, she was accused (because she was black) of stealing a customer's purse.

Furthermore, the suit alleges that Deen's brother Bubba treated black employees like subhumans, calling them "monkeys" and physically assaulting them. And his racism was not restricted to African-Americans either. Because Jackson was good at saving money, Bubba allegedly referred to her as "my little Jew girl."

Not surprisingly, Jackson also alleges that Deen's company openly discriminated against women in pay. One of its corporate administrators allegedly said that women were "stupid" to think that they could have babies and get paid the same as men.  She alleges as well that Deen's brother sexually harassed her and other female staff by showing pornography in the workplace

While we don't know whether the allegations against Deen and company are true, Deen undeniably hurt herself with her public reactions to the accusations. Her supposed apologies have revealed a stupendous level of ignorance of the past and current era business practices and modern race relations. Her statements have  made the allegations against her sound plausible; therefore, she is an obvious business risk. She has created such a mess for herself that the media reports she's hired Judy Smith, the crisis manager on whom the character Olivia Pope is based from ABC's drama Scandal.

As these allegations have come to light and especially if they are later proven true, any business (as well as any person) that appears to have supported Deen's poor business practices--in particular her unwillingness to shut down her brother Bubba's gross racist and sexist behaviors as alleged in Jackson's complaint--will seem to have condoned more than simply an occasional slip of the N-word; they will appear to have condoned unconscionable discrimination and the kind of racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism rarely tolerated in a presumably enlightened, fair society.

The kinds of behavior of which Deen, her brother, and her company have been accused should not be excused in the worksplace anymore than one would excuse flagrant masturbation in a public space. Who would want to work around that, who would want to be forced to accept it?

Deen is a business liability. More than likely, she's also a typical Southern racist NOT of the aggressive "cross-burning" variety but one of the antebellum-ideation, white entitlement sort permitted in so many Southern cities--a fixture. Jackson may have exaggerated some of her allegations, but I suspect that her conveyance of Bubba's general attitude toward blacks, Jewish people, and women, as well as Deen's tolerance of such behavior and Deen's romanticizing of Gone-With-the-Wind values as presented in the complaint, are probably true. If the popular Southern chef had confined her tolerance of such attitudes and behaviors to her living room, then that would be her right, but once she let them seep into the work environment, she was infringing on the rights of others.

If the allegations are true, what we see now is Deen reaping what she's sown in her unwillingness to adapt to the modern world and the nasty seeds she's let her brother sow in her name. In our souls, we may forgive her, but in court, there's a price to pay for that sort of thing these days.

Lagniappe: If you read this, you may also appreciate Cassandra Jackson's post: "Paula Deen, the N-Word, and Sh*t Black Folks Can't Say."


Anonymous said...

Great writing! I wonder why the brother hasn't come out to express any contrition for this as he was also involved?

Deborah White said...

Your post is so on point regarding Paula, the lawsuit and the social Gorilla known as Racism.