BY NOW, most all of you have heard about the controversial comments that culinary star and local fixture Paula Deen made during a deposition given last month.
Racism isn't a topic that's easily digested, but over the weekend I had a number of conversations about the subject during my night job as a server — with locals, tourists, northerners, southerners, and with fellow restaurant workers.
(I'm not a small talk girl, not even while I'm waiting tables.)
The quote of Deen's brought up most often during my passing conversations was about her description of the "really Southern plantation wedding" she wanted to emulate for her brother. While she denies using the N-word, which was part of the allegation in the lawsuit, she does admit to mentioning her consideration of an all-black wait staff for her brother's wedding.
"I remember telling them about a restaurant that my husband and I had recently visited. And I'm wanting to think it was in Tennessee or North Carolina or somewhere, and it was so impressive," Deen said.
"The whole entire wait staff was middle-aged black men, and they had on beautiful white jackets with a black bow tie. I mean, it was really impressive. And I remember saying I would love to have servers like that, I said, but I would be afraid that somebody would misinterpret."
And now that these details are in the media spotlight — are people misinterpreting or taking offense when necessary?
The lawsuit against Deen, her brother (Bubba Hiers), and Deen's empire (Paula Deen Enterprises, LLC, The Lady & Sons, LLC, The Lady Enterprises, Inc., and Uncle Bubba's Seafood and Oyster House, Inc.) is stuffed with allegations of racial discrimination in the workplace, from uses of racial slurs to people allegedly having to use separate bathrooms based on race.
I heard many opinions while at my serving job. While some of the people I came across deemed Deen racist, many others decided the answer wasn't that shortsighted.
A table I waited on agreed that she was eating her words at one point during the deposition. The transcript shows that she was stumbling on her answer when asked if she had ever used the N-word. The words "I don't know" were repeatedly interrupting her response.
"That's kind of hard. Most — most jokes are about Jewish people, rednecks, black folks. Most jokes target — I don't know. I didn't make up the jokes, I don't know," said Deen.
"They usually target, though, a group. Gays or straights, black, redneck, you know, I just don't know — I just don't know what to say. I can't, myself, determine what offends another person."
(She's right about that last part. Ever accidentally mention menopause when your mother is angry?)
But categorizing what most jokes are about probably wasn't the best reaction. (Because it's simply not true — most jokes are about sex.)
As I was serving and contemplating Deen's comment, at the same time I began to reflect on my own race — something I seldom do. Probably because I'm half Asian and half Hispanic and don't really know what to do with myself about it.
And I will admit that I have made more jokes about my own race(s) than I've heard. Honestly, the only struggle I've had when thinking about my own race was figuring out which box to check.
And isn't that the way it should be — that race is not definitive? I wish it were that easy.
While Deen pointed out that she wasn't trying to discriminate by categorizing those servers by their race, she was right to be "afraid that someone would misinterpret."
Being a server is a pride-swallowing job. Having to put the stigma of race and a time period of oppression on top of it is an unnecessary job.
But a fellow server commented that she didn't make up the restaurant she wanted to emulate. There are places that hire people to do these things — to play a role, fully aware of the job description.
"Think of Medieval Times, and how they urge you to call your waitresses 'wenches.' Is that offensive?" another coworker of mine added. (But, can we do that at Hooters?)
Well, maybe there simply shouldn't be places where discrimination is part of the theme of the workplace. The offense of Deen's comment doesn't simply lie in having a waitstaff of a single race. There is offense derived from the idea that she and other guests would enjoy being served this way.
Deen's attorney, William Franklin, told the Associated Press in a statement, "Contrary to media reports, Ms. Deen does not condone or find the use of racial epithets acceptable."
Whether or not Paula Deen used the N-word is still speculation, and Deen's "I don't know"-filled response was an example of poor articulation.
But why a person would have a racial preference for their servers is the bigger point of contemplation.
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