Why I Might Be a Racist

11 Jul Why I Might Be a Racist

screen_shot_2013-07-11_at_10.59.48_am-resized-600In the court of public opinion, everyone’s guilty of everything.

At least that’s the way it feels sometimes, doesn’t it?

Aaron Hernandez, George Zimmerman, Paula Deen, OJ.

We love to imagine the worst.

Then again, there’s a whole division of the “public relations arts” devoted to mitigating the effects of celebrity crime and stupidity.


To the PR guy or gal who designed this winning camera shot? Brilliant! It screams innocence.

My colleague Jennifer posted an article last month about the Paula Deen fiasco, and her conclusion was that Deen (and her publicist) handled the crisis about as poorly as possible.

Seems like a fair assessment. But I’m less interested in what this says about Paula’s mindset (we can reasonably infer she was doing whatever she could to protect her lucrative sliced ham partnerships) than what it says about ours.

This is what Deen’s professional public relations experts decided that we, the American people, wanted to hear:

The day I used that word, it was a world ago. It was 30 years ago. I had had a gun put to my head, a shakin’ gun, because the man that had the gun to my head, unbeknowing to me, was my customer at the main office.

But didn’t you also–admit, though, that you used the word on other occasions?

No.  No.  No.

So, you have– other than that one time–in the bank, a robbery event, you’re tellin’ me you have never used–the n-word?

I have–never.  I never.

You know, racism is a weird crime. Celebrities don’t commit racism, so much as they commit public indications of racism.

And that’s not a ridiculous thing. Words like the N word are hurtful, and celebrities broadcasting to millions of families should be expected to avoid offending large portions of the populace.

But what consolation could Americans possibly receive from hearing Paula Deen publically pretend that one time, with a gun to her head, she out-of-the-blue and completely uncharacteristically made the “mistake” of saying a word she clearly intended to say?

Are we really more comfortable dealing with that obvious fiction than with the less-than-savory truth?

Yesterday, a friend sent me an article from Grantland – actually an excerpt from the book I Wear the Black Hat by Chuck Klosterman.

The excerpt focused on OJ Simpson, and what he could have done differently – namely, not writing a book-length hypothetical confession. Forgot about that didn’t you? No, that actually happened.

But before he did that, he was pretty much just as reviled. For playing golf. And for not shutting himself off from the world in penitent solitude. Klosterman’s point is that OJ behaved exactly as you’d expect a wrongly accused, recently acquitted man to act.

So we hated him for being a murderer, we hated him even more for not acting like one, and then we hated him again when he basically confessed.

As for Paula, I don’t know anything about her real feelings. If, for instance, the allegations that she planned a mindbogglingly offensive wedding for her brother are true, then… well, that indicates a far deeper problem.

But we often use the words that society tells us we should use. I myself, have frequently uttered an unpleasant racial epithet that by most objective standards (including the heinous way Americans in the past have treated this ethnic group, using this word in particular to debase their status as equal persons) is not unlike the N word for African Americans. I’m talking of course about the word redskins — DC’s unfortunately named pro football team.

(If someone created a new team called the “Blackskins,” you’d probably think that was racist. Wouldn’t you?)

So I hope using the words Washington Redskins doesn’t make me a “racist.” I imagine that to some people it probably does, and to others it is — at the very least — demeaning and offensive. But I use it. Not because I hold any prejudice against Native Americans (I don’t), but because everyone else around here (where I was born and raised) seems to think it’s okay.

Which, if you think about it, was probably the case with the N word when Deen was growing up in the South.

So I’m not defending Paula Deen’s behavior. But I am willing to give her the benefit of the doubt, if she would only quit lying about it.

In fact, I’ve even taken the liberty of drafting what I believe her message should have been — from a public relations perspective.

“Hi, I’m Paula Deen. You may remember me from such recipes as Aunt Nan’s Ole Fashion’d Butter Pie and my world famous Chicken Fried Napkins.”

(Okay, serious part:)

“The statements I made and the words I used were a product of my 1950s Southern upbringing. We used these words casually, without considering their meaning, their history, or how they might affect others. We were, to put it another way, insensitive and stupid. This incident has forced me to face just how hurtful and offensive those words are to most people.

I do not, nor have I ever, held a negative or derogatory opinion of African Americans. Many of my close friends are African American, and realizing the unintentional pain I’ve caused them has been one of the toughest aspects of this ordeal.

I can and do apologize for the words I used. But in truth, they were not some accidental, once-in-a-lifetime fluke. They were the product of years of ignorance and cultural insensitivity on my part. My friends and my fans deserve better from me. And from this point forward, I will do everything I can to correct my behavior and cause no further harm.”

Now, look: I don’t know if any of this is true. But what my statement is, is plausible. It could be true. Unlike what was said in Deen’s unintentionally hilarious Today Show Interview.

And the truth (or the appearance thereof in PR circles) will set us free.


Jonathan Katz
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