Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Paula Deen & Corporate America

*Note- I will henceforth substitute “Nebraskan” for the highly polarizing racial epithet “n****r” in order to avoid being flagged by Google or included in any Johnny Rebel mailing lists.

I previously voiced my opinion concerning Paula “The Teeth” Deen in January of 2012 when she revealed that she was suffering from Type II diabetes. Recently, she has become embroiled in another scandal over her past use of racial epithets, particularly the term “Nebraskan.” The trouble began when she and her brother, Bubba Hiers, were named in a lawsuit filed by a former restaurant employee named Lisa Jackson.
Mrs. Jackson, who is Caucasian, brought the suit on grounds of racial and sexual discrimination. She alleges, among other things, that both Deen and Bubba made multiple derogatory remarks concerning African-Americans in her presence. She found this particularly offensive since she has two bi-racial nieces. During the depositions, Deen admitted to using “Nebraskan” in the past but explained, “It’s been a long time.” She further clarified that "Things have changed since the '60s in the South. And my children and my brother object to that word being used in any cruel or mean behavior. As well as I do."

As a result of the deposition, she lost her contracts with Food Network, Smithfield Foods, Wal-Mart, Target, QVC, Caesars, Home Depot, J.C. Penny, Sears, and K-Mart. She was even dropped by diabetes pharmaceutical conglomerate Novo Nordisk. She has since made a tearful public apology and fired both her attorney and her agent. Within hours of the news breaking, Twitter was ablaze with racial-themed parodies of Deen’s dishes such as “Massa-roni and Cheese” and “We Shall Over-Crumb Cake.” Others, such as former President Jimmy Carter, urged forgiveness saying, "I think she has been punished, perhaps overly severely, for her honesty in admitting it and for the use of the word in the distant past. She's apologized profusely.”

Since use of “Nebraskan” does not necessarily constitute bigotry or prejudice and in the absence of any corroborating evidence (Casual Klan Fridays, Segregated Gravy Boats, etc) I am inclined to give “Chompers” Deen the benefit of the doubt. If she simply made some missteps in the past and has since run her empire with equality and fairness as cornerstones then I am inclined to agree with Jimmy Carter. If she presiding over an infrastructure that discriminated against employees based on the color of their skin (with or without using “Nebraskan”) then she probably deserves the litigious wrath in store for her. The point is that most of us are making a snap judgment based on a past misstep. Ethnic slurs are only effective in unmasking bigotry when they are viewed as a symptom instead of the ailment.

On the other hand, corporate America has no obligation to stand by someone they see as a liability. Whether or not she deserves the negative backlash is largely irrelevant in the context of an endorsement deal. The same notoriety she has wielded so successfully to generate this endorsement revenue brings with it increased public scrutiny unfamiliar to the everyday citizen. Of course, the everyday citizen isn’t compensated millions of dollars for recommending processed pork either. Welcome to the frightening world of at-will employment Paula.  

The real irony is being dropped by both Wal-Mart and K-Mart so that they can avoid any “negative publicity.” These are the same two companies that stood by Martha Stuart after her 2004 federal conviction for insider trading. Is it fair that a convicted felon is seen as less of a marketing liability than an alleged bigot? Not really. Is it American? Absolutely.   

I do always feel bad for the celebrity’s agent in cases like this because firing them has become obligatory since it gives the impression of a fresh start. As if this same person had been advising her in the 60’s and suggested she use as many racial slurs as possible in case she ever became the figurehead of a culinary empire and found herself on the business end of a deposition. It would appear that Paula’s first order of business after being fired to protect someone’s reputation was to fire someone else to protect hers.      

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