I'll never forget the moment, ten years ago, when I offhandedly joked to my inner-city New Haven, Connecticut English class that "I'm a little bit redneck." I think I was talking about something from where I grew up in central Indiana--like how someone drove a combine harvester to prom--and suddenly my classroom of Hispanic and African-American kids gasped, "Mrs. Fehrman!" and suddenly I knew I'd said something wrong. I always thought "redneck" meant a country person, but my students said it was a racist country person. Whoa. Luckily we'd had enough months together that they knew my character and I was able to quickly fix the situation.
But Redneck and the N-word aren't the same, and I'm not famous.
There's something about this Paula Deen situation that gives me pause. On one hand I feel bad for her and know that her Southern upbringing 60 years ago would have been riddled with ugly slurs. There's no denying that. I hope and think she's grown up humble to that. But there's something else. Maybe it's how she handled her diabetes announcement. She knew for months that she had type-2 diabetes, continued cooking her fried butter-style recipes, and then made the big announcement only after signing a contract with a diabetes drug. Fishy timing? Deep fried. Once the sequence of events was put together it became a news scandal, and the drug dropped Paula. Food Network, et al. must feel like deja-vu to her.
I'm from an area of Indiana that is more racist than any other place I've lived. There are still active Ku Klux Klan groups, if you can believe that. I heard the N-word around my all-white high school but was taught why it was wrong (and inflammatory) to use it. Things I wasn't taught? My college roommate had to explain what "getting jewed" meant. I seriously had no idea that it was racist or what the phrase had to do with Jewish people or negative stereotypes. Just recently I said something about "getting gyped" and a friend called me out on it. Wide eyed I said, "Is that racist? I thought it just meant getting swindled." Yup, swindled by a specific ethnic group.
In those ways I'm stupid and have learned not to be. The moment I know that something is offensive to a person or group, it ceases to exist in my vocabulary. There are people who think being "politically correct" goes too far, but it's not too far if you're part of a group that gets sneered at, and it's not too far if you actually care about not hurting people with words (Side Note: I'd love it if you'd sign this promise never to use the R-word).
I've never apologized about my slurs because I haven't had anyone to apologize to. But right now let's do this. If there are any Jewish or Gypsy people reading this, I'm sorry for what I said in the past, even unknowingly. If there are any non-Jewish or non-Gypsy people who were offended by me telling about past stupidity, I'm sorry to you as well.
And this is where Paula and I differ. After watching Paula's Today Show interview, I never heard those two words. I have no doubt that she's sorry about something. In my dealings with people who I've wronged or hurt or even inadvertently hurt, it's always best to begin with an apology. Benefit of the doubt...maybe Paula's corporate advisors and lawyers won't let her.
There's an important chapter in the book of James 2.
For Paula, for me, for us all:
The royal law is found in Scripture. It says, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18) If you really keep that law, you are doing what is right. 9 But you sin if you don’t treat everyone the same. The law judges you because you have broken it. 10 Suppose you keep the whole law but trip over just one part of it. Then you are guilty of breaking all of it.
As Paula begins a long process of finding her true self among the news and blog naysayers, corporate advisors, lost contracts, and hurt family, let's all remember the next part of that scripture:
12 Speak and act like people who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom. 13 Those who have not shown mercy will not receive mercy when they are judged. To show mercy is better than to judge.
Unfortunately for Paula, a dozen of her sponsors and her book publisher don't seem to follow James 2.