Paula Deen and Forgiveness

Published in the Pawtucket Times, June 28, 2013

This week nobody could escape the 24 hour news cycle reporting how American Celebrity Chef, Paula Deen, a product of her Southern upbringing, admitted that she had spoken a racially charged “N-word” decades ago. Once the dust settles, the nation will get to see if one of Savannah, Georgia’s most prominent residents can rehabilitate herself. Will she personally and professionally survive the swift backlash of the racial slur-controversy, or will the pubic respond to her tearful pleas for forgiveness and give her one last chance for redemption?

The Ugly “N-Word”

Deen now joins actors Mil Gibson, Charlie Sheen, Michael Richards (a.k.a., Kramer), reality TV stars, Dog the Bounty Hunter and hotel heiress Paris Hilton, along with musicians John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Jennifer Lopez, John Mayers, Eminem, even radio show host Dr. Laura Schlessinger who all stirred up the public’s wrath by uttering the “N-word.”

The 66-year-old former Food Network host, restaurateur, writer of cook books, actress and Emmy Award winning television personality, now suddenly finds her career unraveling, like many who have used the racially charged “N-word,” one of the most offensive words in the English language, a word that invokes ugly racial stereotypes.

The media reporting details of a May 17 deposition, resulting from a $1.2 million lawsuit filed by a former restaurant manager at the Uncle Bubba’s Oyster House, a Savannah, Georgia-based restaurant owned by Deen and her brother, created a public firestorm over her use of a very ugly word. Deen stated that she had used the “N-word” at times, decades ago, even detailing her plans to dress waiters at a 2007 wedding as slaves, “wearing long sleeve white shirts, black shorts and black bow ties.”

The Food Network quickly responded to news reports about announcing the dropping of her show, “Paula’s Home Cooking,” then announcing Deen’s contract would not be renewed next month. Later the Smithfield Foods, Inc., retail giant Wal-Mart, and Caesars Entertainment followed suit, severing ties with Paula Deen Entertainment.

Many of her business partners and sponsors, including Shopping Network CVC, which sells a line of her cookware, and Random House, publisher of her cook books, are monitoring the situation closely to determine their actions.

Trying to take control of an issue spiraling out of control, a teary Deen created two YouTube apology videos to offer her mea culpa for using racial slurs last week, also making a 13-minute appearance on Today with Matt Lauer on June 16 to address this controversy.

Public relations experts give mixed reviews as to how effective she was in reducing the negative impact on her brand and celebrity image using racial slurs. Deen’s salvation may well rest on the public’s short attention span and their desire to forgive, say the experts.

Circling the Wagons

Although Deen can not shake the financial impact of being politically incorrect, her fans are rallying behind her.

This week, thousands of irate Deen’s fans are rallying to support her by leaving their comments on the Food Network’s Face book page, to support the besieged celebrity chef, saying that the network moved too fast to oust her, even overreacting. Many viewed her sacking as political correctness run amuck, calling for her to be given a pass for the use of the “N-word.”

Just two days ago, a newly created “We Support Paula Deen” Face book page already has 418,452 Likes, with many loyal fan comments urging Deen’s sponsors to give her a second chance. Many noted that people make mistakes in life and who hasn’t told an inappropriate or off-color joke or used inappropriate words in private or with family.

Also, according to The Associated Press, civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson has agreed to help Deen try to make amends for her past use of the “N-word,” saying she shouldn’t become a “sacrificial lamb” over the issue of racial intolerance. Dean had called him to seek his guidance as to how to recover, noted the news wire.

Bravo for Rev. Jackson, who says in this press report that if Deen is willing to acknowledge mistakes and make changes, “she should be reclaimed rather than destroyed.”

The Baptist minister who was a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984 and 1988 and served as a shadow U.S. Senator for the District of Columbia from 1991 to 1997 says he’s more troubled by racial disparities in jobs, lending, health care, business opportunities and the criminal justice system.

Anne Rice, author of gothic fiction and Christian literature and erotic, best known for her popular and influential series of novels The Vampire Chronicles, joins Rev. Jackson in defending Deen.

On her Face Book Page, Rice says what is happening to Deen is “unjust,” comparing it to a “High Tech Execution,” a witch hunt and public burning that is a “horrible thing to witness.”

Furthermore, best-selling author, Rice, who has written 33 books, all novels except one personal memoir, quips, “It is all too easy to ‘hate’ a witch and join in the “fun” of a public execution, and to feel smug and superior and righteous for doing it. And that is what we are seeing now with Paula Deen. Pure ugliness. This is the very opposite of respect for the dignity of all persons.”

Finally, liberal Bill Maher even goes to bat for Deen on Real Time with Bill Maher in a recent episode on HBO.

The Power of Forgiveness

For those, like Deen, who have made terrible mistakes through their misjudgments and use of inappropriate slur words (like the “N-word”) many rarely survive the backlash of political correctness, even when they plead for forgiveness, as their lives are destroyed.

Deen’s racial controversy can positively impact our society by allowing more dialogue about and to confront both personal and institutional racism. Rather then allowing a single mistake to ruin a person’s life, give the individual an opportunity to take responsibility and learn from their inappropriate behavior and actions. Give them a second chance. What a great celebrity spokesperson Deen could become to bring the races together.

It is so important for individuals to learn to forgive their family and friends who have hurt or disappointed them. So, too must a society do this. Former South African President Nelson Mandela is an international role model as to how forgiveness can become the perfect way to way to heal the nation’s racist tendencies. At press time, the former President remains in critical condition in a hospital in Pretoria, South Africa, kept on life support, where he is being treated for a lung infection.

Writer Simon Kent, in a June 10, 2013 post on the Toronto Sun’s web site, states that the frail 94-year-old leader’s legacy to the world is teaching us “forgiveness.”

When Mandela’s National African party won the election that would end apartheid in South Africa, he forgave his white political foes, says Kent, noting that the power of forgiveness kept the black majority ruling party from seeking revenge.

Kent said: “He didn’t hate the political system that had barred him from voting.

Mandela didn’t hate the rest of the world that for years had turned its back on non-white South Africans.”

Mandela just “offered mercy both to his tormentors and his foes and urged fellow South Africans to do the same” added Kent. Yes, forgiveness.

According to Kent, at his 1994 inauguration, Prisoner 46664 — Nelson Mandela — had kept a seat set aside for a very special guest he wanted to witness his swearing-in as President, the highest office in the land. This person, one of his former jailers from Robben Island, where he was held for 18 years of hard labor, he said.

If Mandela can easily forgive his former jailor and a white society that kept his black brothers and sisters enslaved for centuries, why can’t we just forgive Paula Deen, for saying the “N-word” decades ago. Simply put, it just seems like the right thing to do.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a writer covering aging, medical and health care issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.

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