Paula Deen, Race and A Defense of Thoughtcrime

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Every American knows about the epic third-railness of racism in public life. Nappy-headed hos, you people, articulate and bright, macaca, let’s stop there. All public figures in America are one N-word away from utter and total ruin. No other word or opinion has anything like the toxicity of a racial slur. A white politician or actor (or, apparently, TV chef) can be on record saying just about anything (‘sugar tits‘, ‘takers not makers‘) and keep their job, their chance at a second chance. But say something racist and, well, you don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here.

This is correct. Racism in America is a uniquely ugly thing, something whose effects are still present in our policies, our economy, our workplaces, our schools. You’re not allowed to defend something whose impacts are still being lived by a significant percentage of your countrymen, especially if you are on the benefits end of those impacts. This doesn’t mean you can’t talk about race, just that you have to be a little more careful when you do. If you can’t keep your eyes open underwater, don’t jump in the pool.

This sensitivity, this hesitation, is  unique in American history. You could get away with saying some bonkers-racist shit in public just a few decades ago. But racism is also unique relative to other social issues. If Paula Deen had said that the death penalty should be expanded, that poor people just don’t work hard enough, that public schools should be abolished, that Medicare should be defunded, that inequality in America isn’t wide enough, yeah the internet would have shitted on her, and maybe she would have lost an endorsement or two, but we would move on. She would have nothing like the systematic ostracism she’s getting now.

Again, this is not a bad thing. Discrimination was the great battle of the 20th century, and winning it is one of the progressive left’s greatest victories. I’m fine with a world where you have to be careful talking about race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, where certain opinions (‘women shouldn’t be voting!’ ‘Slavery was adorable‘) will get you kicked off the TV and the ballot.

I am a great big homosexual. Every day I root for homophobia to reach this magical status, to get to the point where a politician says a mean, stupid thing about My People and is instantly shoved off the platform of public life. In fact, I hope when homophobia gets there, it brings some of its friends with it. Poverty, inequality, free health care, free(er) immigration, worker’s rights—I want all these topics to achieve the level of consensus we’ve worked so hard to reach on racism. I hope progressive activists are looking at the way we police each other on race and going ‘yeah, looks about right.’

This sounds like I’m arguing for a new kind of thoughtcrime, for an America where politicians and actors and other public figures feel prohibited from expressing opinions I disagree with. But what I’m saying is that I want them  to feel prohibited from expressing the first thing that pops into their head. Race in America is something that, when you talk about it, you have to think a little harder, talk a little slower, squeeze a little empathy out of your words and your heart to be taken seriously.

This, that little pause before you speak, is what progress looks like, and there are a lot more issues in America that deserve it. Next time a TV chef sits down for an interview, I’ll bet they will take it. 

3 Comments

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3 responses to “Paula Deen, Race and A Defense of Thoughtcrime

  1. A b

    Her remarks were certainly eye-opening to those of us who hoped that such staggeringly uninformed (to be polite) attitudes had faded away, at least among public figures.

    I’m ambivalent about how quickly she has been shunned, though, because it seems to me the current imbroglio has obscured what should have been the reason for Food Network, at least, to have dumped her. When she publicly revealed her diabetes diagnosis in the same breath as her diabetes-drug endorsement deal with Novo Nordisk last year, it was an act of breathtaking gall, capitalizing on the health problem she helped create in herself and, I don’t doubt, in much of her audience. Is racism, however overt and unapologetic, worse than shameless profiteering? I’m not sure, not in Deen’s case.

  2. bill

    “This sounds like I’m arguing for a new kind of thoughtcrime, for an America where politicians and actors and other public figures feel prohibited from expressing opinions I disagree with.”

    It sounds like that, because that is exactly what you are doing.

    Forcing intolerance/hatred underground, no matter how wrong the intolerance/hatred may be, only causes the negativity to fester. It creates an unhealthy and dishonest environment for *everyone*. This is *not* progress.

    Your all-encompassing, politically correct intolerance is malignant. And it makes you one giant, educated, thoughtful, well-spoken, sanctimonius, self-righteous, bigoted idiot.

  3. Finally–someone with the guts to defend political correctness. A great many people here in the USA miss the days when they could say any vile, corrosive epithet or stereotype that came to mind. I believe the words we say change us. If we speak tolerance or acceptance, we become more tolerant and accepting.

    I’m also glad you spoke of empathy. The ability to, as it were, walk a mile in someone’s shoes, is the beginning of progress from racism and other prejudices.

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