Is Paula Deen’s n-word use a Southern thing?

CHARLOTTE – Paula Deen finally made it to The Today Show on Wednesday. The celebrity restaurant owner and businesswoman, known for her heavy-on-the-butter cooking style, is now equally as famous for her alleged comments on race, the n-word, nostalgia for Civil War-era serving rituals and a tolerance for racist and sexist jokes, as well as pornographic humor, in the workplace.

Deen, who is losing her show on the Food Network, a relationship with Smithfield Foods and getting the once-over from sponsors of various lucrative enterprises, made the appearance with Matt Lauer that she skipped last week. But it still was all about Paula. “I is what I is and I’m not changing,” she said, and blamed “something evil” out there that wanted what she had for the trouble she is in.

Deen didn’t really apologize for the statements she made in a deposition answering a former employee’s complaints. She instead seemed to consider herself the victim. The things that most distressed her, she said in her emotion-filled interview with Lauer, were the “horrible lies” being said about her and the n-word-laced banter of her kitchen workers. She never mentioned the affect of her own actions or comments on her employees or anyone else. And her advisers must have figured out the less said about re-creating a scene of guests being served by a neatly dressed cadre of black waiters, the better.

The ‘way I was raised’

What you did hear were contradictions about what it means to be a 66-year-old white Southerner talking about race. To insult anyone, to raise herself up as superior in any way was not, Deen told Lauer, the “way I was raised.”

But an earlier statement from her public relations team – the one in place last week, anyway – told a different story about the past, hers and the South’s.

“During a deposition where she swore to tell the truth, Ms. Deen recounted having used a racial epithet in the past, speaking largely about a time in American history which was quite different than today,” the statement said. “She was born 60 years ago when America’s South had schools that were segregated, different bathrooms, different restaurants and Americans rode in different parts of the bus. This is not today.”

Some fans and fellow chefs have defended her, accepting the first explanation that as a child of the South, such language and attitudes were common and not a sign that she treated anyone poorly. Putting aside the difference between what anyone does or says behind closed doors at home and the atmosphere entrepreneurs must create in the workplace, does accepting that “everyone did it that way so can we just stop being politically correct and move on” characterize a region with a broad and racially poisonous stereotype?

Even Southerners who sense a whiff of elitist piling on in the attacks on Deen might not appreciate their home being used as a scapegoat for Deen’s transgressions, just a case of Southern cultural values and traditions misunderstood by outsiders.

At the front desk of uptown Charlotte’s Levine Museum of the New South, where award-winning exhibits examine the complicated history of the region, two friends and fellow Southerners greeting visitors at the front desk had been talking about just that subject. “It’s not a Southern thing,” was the unison refrain of the museum’s chief operating officer Steve Bentley and Bertha Tillman of guest services.

Tillman, 38, is African-American and grew up in Charlotte. Tillman, who said she refuses to use the n-word, also said that Deen can stop talking about her upbringing – “she is showing us how she was raised.” Tillman said Deen has never really apologized for her actions and said she was a little put off by fans’ love and support for the celebrity. “It doesn’t make what she did right,” said Tillman, who will no longer be checking out any Deen recipes online.