Defend your life: Paula Deen, Serena Williams and “traditions” like The Help

Posted on June 23, 2013


I’m a little younger than Paula Deen.

And Serena Williams is a bit older than my first child, had she lived. But in each of these women’s statements which rocked the web this week, I recognized “tradition.”

In Paula Deen’s case, it was the use of southern traditions that I’ve discussed at length on this blog. In Serena Williams case, I haven’t fully explored that subject on this site, but since the door has been opened, I thought now would be a good time to post something on how women view other women, in the context of a sexual assault or domestic violence.

Both of their statements have roots in what I term “traditions.” In Deen’s case, just today a video surfaced with more stomach churning statements by the cooking giant. In Williams’ case, some are just now realizing that blaming the victim is wrong. Both women stated things that are not acceptable in today’s changing society.


But I also wish to add, that both women are free to express their opinions, and that’s what they did.


I felt the sting of both their statements. Though I laughed at some of the recipes thought up under the Twitter hashtag #Paulasbestdishes on twitter, I did have a moment of “hey y’all, this shouldn’t be made light of.”

Here’s an example:

Paula Deen hashtag with inventive dishes

Paula Deen hashtag with inventive dishes





Paula’s statements also included wistfully dreaming of a plantation style wedding for her brother Bubba, complete with all black “help”

Her wish-fulfillment fantasy reminded me of a couple who’d lived out their South African colonial themed wedding, reportedly segregating the staff and the guests by color.

A throwback colonial, South African wedding

A throwback colonial, South African wedding. Celebrating nuptials and Apartheid



Here’s what the photographer who approached the couple with the idea had to say at first (but has since taken it down):

It’s not often that we meet clients and get as excited about a  wedding as we did almost 4 months in advance. When we met Dave and  Chantal in January to discuss their ‘Out of Africa’ themed wedding, we couldn’t hide our excitement and Travis was practically bouncing off the  walls with ideas and inspiration. We love themed weddings, especially  beautiful themes like ‘Colonial Africa’ which promise great pictures and  a nostalgic and thoughtfully decorated wedding. – quote by the photographer



“Nostalgic” and “thoughtfully decorated” Oh boy.

I’m not sure I can find photos of a “southern styled, plantation inspired wedding” on the web, complete with one color fits all domestic staff. I’ll update this post with the pics later on if I run across any.

In a video from September of 2012, Deen makes a statement that harkens back to the days of the Antebellum south, a “theory” that has been handed down to this day, and one that author Kathryn Stockett used in her novel The Help:

 “black folk were such integral part of our lives, they were like our family,” and, for that reason, “we didn’t see ourselves as being prejudiced.” – quote by Paul Deen, from an article on The




Since Dean took the occasion to time travel and explain just why and how those who kept slaves felt, I thought I’d share some actual history on, you know, how just how badly some blacks wanted to divorce themselves from their employer’s “family.”


This account is included in a text called James Williams, An American Slave:

AIKEN, S. C., Dec. 20, 1836.          I have just returned from an inquest I held over the  dead body of a negro man, a runaway, that was shot near the South Edisto, in this District, (Barnewell,) on Saturday morning last.  He came to his death by his own recklessness.  He refused to be taken alive; and said that other attempts to take him had been made, and he was determined that he would not be taken. When taken, he was nearly naked  –  had a large dirk or knife, and a heavy club.  He was, at first, (when those who were in pursuit of him found it absolutely necessary,) shot at with small-shot, with the intention of merely crippling him.  He was shot at several times, and at last he was so disabled as to be compelled to surrender.  He kept in the run of a creek in a very  dense swamp all the time that the neighbors were in  pursuit of him.  As soon as the negro was taken, the  best medical aid was procured, but he died on the same evening.  One of the witnesses at the inquisition stated that the negro boy said that he was from Mississippi, and belonged to so many persons he did not know who his master was: but again he said his master’s name  was Brown.  He said his own name was Sam; and when asked by another witness who his master was, he muttered something like Augusta or Augustine.  The boy was apparently above 35 or 40 years of age  –  about  six feet high  –  slightly yellow in the face  –  very long beard of whiskers  –  and very stout built, and a stern countenance; and appeared to have been run away a long time.


Coroner, (Ex officio,)  Barnwell Dist., S.C.

        © This work is the property of the University of North Carolina  at Chapel Hill. It may be used freely by individuals for research, teaching and personal use as long as this statement of availability is included in the text.


The Aunt Jemima mystique.

The Aunt Jemima mystique. Being waited on by a black man or woman



I explored the antebellum propaganda of black employees being “just like family” in a couple of earlier posts, and included links to articles that note historical counterarguments against it:


Upset by how Paula Deen’s being treated, a few of her fans have launched Facebook pages and even bombarded the Food Network with emails that support the culinary queen:

“Show me an adult person who has not said the N word in his life, black or white. You without sin cast the first stone,’’ one commenter wrote.”

“I commend her by even apologizing, I know a lot of our political leaders in the nation can’t even say they’re sorry.’’ -Comment by a patron waiting outside Deen’s restaurant, The Lady and Sons




But Deen wasn’t done putting her foot in her mouth, and the footage from 2012 came out after her supporters gathered. More from her September 2012 video interview (items in bold are my doing):

“By far the strangest, most awkward moment of the whole talk, however, is when she talks about a black employee of hers named Hollis Johnson. She says that he’s become very dear to her in the 18 years she’s known him, which is plenty sweet. But then she says points to the jet-colored backdrop behind her and says he’s “black as this board.” She proceeds to call out to him in the audience and ask him to come on stage, telling him, “We can’t see you standing in front of that dark board!” The audience roars with laughter. Severson, shocked, says, “Welcome to New York.” And Paula, characteristically, responds, “Welcome to the South.”




Paula Deen singling out the "valued" employee she claims is as black as the background board

Paula Deen singling out the “valued” employee she claims is as black as the background board



What’s not lost on me is the audience laughter, and that it appears Deen’s never challenged on her statements. Unfortunately, by this not happening, Deen may have believed nothing in her statements could be taken as offensive. And Deen herself may not be aware of the propaganda she learned about African Americans was incorrect, and thus she continued to spread it. Something tells me she knows now, as she issued an apology via YouTube.

Paula Deen fell victim to believing her own hype. Because Deen is the folksy, bubbly, ever smiling southern gal who spreads warmth and waistlines with her home style cooking. And that image is at odds with how an ex-employee says Deen ran her business empire. So let me also state, that the issue is the work environment Deen fostered, one where old skol attitudes on race prevailed, to the point of making her employees uncomfortable.


Deen wasn’t canned by the Food Network simply for saying “Nigger” (hell, the Academy voters awarded an Oscar for Best Screenplay to Django Unchained, and it’s reported that the word was repeated 138 times in that film). It’s because her views, and also her brother Bubba’s conversations, jokes, and general treatment of employees doesn’t mesh with her TV image.


Deen was scheduled to appear on The Today Show, but instead cancelled, according to Matt Lauer:

“We had arranged to do an interview with Paula Deen, it had been going on, the discussions about that interview, throughout the day yesterday with her people,” Lauer said in the show’s opening. “I spoke to her late afternoon on the phone yesterday and we talked about the fact that it would be an open and candid discussion, no holds barred.” Later, Lauer added, “She told me at one point… ‘I don’t know how to be anything but honest.’”




Now Deen has announced that she will tell all on The Today show, this coming Wednesday (June 26th). I’ve updated this post to list Deen’s interview answers, and it’s coming up a few paragraphs down.


But by that time, the damage may already be too much to quickly repair. It’s not simply about forgiving. But whether people can FORGET.


Less Than Accidental Racist: Why Paula Deen’s Comments Insult Her Fans Too

by James Poniewozik of

“Deen made a pile of money off a certain idea of old-school southern culture. In return, she had an obligation to that culture–an obligation not to embody its worst, most shameful history and attitudes. Instead, in one swoop, fairly or not, she single-handedly affirmed people’s worst suspicions of people who talk and eat like her–along with glibly insulting minorities, she slurred many of the very fans who made her successful. She made it that much harder to say that Confederate Bean Soup is just a recipe.”





James Poniewozik makes some very good points (I’ve put the items in bold):

“And in a way, maybe one side benefit of this spectacle is that its forces a conversation about the connections between culture and history. When Brad Paisley released “Accidental Racist” with LL Cool J earlier this year, a lot of people–me included–made fun of the song’s corniness, or critiqued its white-guy self-pity. But Paisley at least was trying to talk, however poorly, about a real thing: the tension between people wanting to retain symbols of their region’s past and people who have a hard time seeing those symbols as innocent nostalgia.

In the case of “Accidental Racist,” the flashpoint is a Confederate flag T-shirt. The narrator sees it as simple southern-rock fandom, now separated from the people who used to fly it in a war to preserve their right to own black slaves. That’s all history–it’s about other people’s “mistakes” from the past–but now it just means you’re a Skynyrd fan. The black man he meets at a Starbucks, voiced by LL Cool J, can’t write it off that easily. You can’t just separate sweet nostalgia from ugly history.”




Here’s an example of just some of the allegations that an ex-employee named Lisa Jackson gave against Paula Deen. This is from Page 17 of the deposition:


Just one of the allegations against Paula Dean



Here’s how Deen answered this allegation:


Paula Deen’s sworn testimony in response to Lisa Jackson’s Allegation



A bit more on Paula Deen’s responses when asked about the type of jokes both she and her brother (Bubba) would tell in the presence of former employee Lisa Jackson:

Deen: That’s — 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. I can’t — I don’t know.

Lawyer: Okay.
Deen: They usually target, though a group. Gays or straights, black, redneck, you know, I just don’t know. I can’t, myself, determine what offends another person.

Lawyer: Why did that make it a -– if you would have had servers like that, why would that have made it a really southern plantation wedding?

Deen: Well, it –- to me, of course I’m old but I ain’t that old, I didn’t live back in those days but I’ve seen the pictures, and the pictures that I’ve seen, that restaurant represented a certain era in America.

Lawyer: Okay.
Deen: And I was in the south when I went to this restaurant. It was located in the south.

Lawyer: Okay. What era in America are you referring to?
Deen: Well, I don’t know. After the Civil War, during the Civil War, before the Civil War.

Lawyer: Right. Back in an era where there were middle-aged black men waiting on white people.
Deen: Well, it was not only black men, it was black women.

Lawyer: Sure. And before the Civil War –- before the Civil War, those black men and women who were waiting on white people were slaves, right?
Deen: Yes, I would say that they were slaves.

Lawyer: Okay.
Deen: But I did not mean anything derogatory by saying that I loved their look and their professionalism.


The Full Deposition:



Link: Paula Deen Deposition Testimony



Deen’s “Aw shucks, that’s just how we rolled back then” is answered very well by this poster on commenter's opinion on Paul Deen's deposition answers commenter’s opinion on Paula Deen’s deposition answers



Paula Deen as "The Help"

Paula Deen as “The Help” hams it up for the cameras



“I can’t, myself, determine what offends another person.”  – Paula Deen deposition quote, after admitting engaging in jokes that “usually target, though a group. Gays or straights, black, redneck, you know . . . “


Update: Paula Deen appeared on The Today Show. Like most media outlets, Matt Lauer focused on Paula’s deposition statements. I’m not certain if Matt viewed Paula’s video interview in New York from 2012, but the real issue is being missed here, which I’ll go further into with an upcoming post.


Paula Deen emotes on The Today Show. Photo from

Paula Deen emotes on The Today Show. Photo from


Deen strays off Matt’s pointed questions, explaining that while it’s true she called a black man a nigger, she had good reason for it because he’d put a gun put to her head. Deen recounts her former job in a bank. Apparently she’d gone out on a limb for the robber when he needed a loan, noting he was frightened that she’d recognized him during the robbery.

Matt goes on to refer to Paula’s answer in the deposition, since Deen aimed uncertainty at what offends another person:

Lauer: “Do you have doubt in your mind, that African Americans are offended by the N word?”

Deen: “I don’t know Matt. I have asked myself that many times. It’s very distressing for me to go in my kitchens and hear what these young people are calling each other. . . . Because I think for this problem to be worked on, that these young people are gonna have to take control and not throw that word at each other.”

Deen shifts the blame to the younger generation of African Americans, going on to give a tearful (without the waterworks on camera, apparently they fell afterward) confessional, describing the woman who filed the lawsuit as “There’s someone evil out there, that saw what I had worked for, and they wanted it.”  (which ties into her sons allegations that the lawsuit was simply an extortion bid). Deen adds this phrase before another tearful testimonial ends the interview “I is what I is, and I’m not changing.”  





Now it’s time to take a look at Serena William’s statements. Like Paula Deen, Serena Williams finds herself embroiled in controversy, as her statements to Rollingstone Magazine back in March 2013 have just become public:


“We watch the news for a while, and the infamous Steubenville rape case flashes  on the TV – two high school football players raped a drunk 16-year-old, while  other students watched and texted details of the crime. Serena just shakes her  head. “Do you think it was fair, what they got? They did something stupid, but I  don’t know. I’m not blaming the girl, but if you’re a 16-year-old and you’re  drunk like that, your parents should teach you: Don’t take drinks from other  people. She’s 16, why was she that drunk where she doesn’t remember? It could  have been much worse. She’s lucky. Obviously, I don’t know, maybe she wasn’t a  virgin, but she shouldn’t have put herself in that position, unless they slipped  her something, then that’s different.”




The “warning” portion of Williams statement is all too familiar to me. But there too, I recall my parents advice about not being incapacitated:

”  . . . I’m not blaming the girl, but if you’re a 16-year-old and you’re  drunk like that, your parents should teach you: Don’t take drinks from other  people. She’s 16, why was she that drunk where she doesn’t remember?”




This is part of the tradition of scaring young people with dire consequences for their actions, or inability to hold their liquor in this case. But what should also be pointed out, is that whether sober or drunk, no one should take advantage of another. And so, as Serena’s statement lit up the internet, she too faced outrage, scorn and ridicule.

And there were a number of other quotes in her interview that had me going Serena, WTF? for example, this one:

“I’ve thought it would be cool to have a baby young,” says Serena. “You know, be  my road dog – like my dogs, they travel the world – but there’s always something  you have to give up for success. Everything comes at a cost. Just what are you  willing to pay for it?”




A baby, as a “road dog?” No. Just. NO.

The article also stated “It’s two days before the start of the Sony Open in Miami, one of the circuit’s  premier nonmajors and the first significant test for Serena since she was upset  in the quarterfinals at the Australian Open after spraining an ankle that had  ballooned to three times its normal size.”

Officially, the Sony Open started on March 18th. That would make the date of Serena’s insensitive, and totally uncalled for reasoning on March 16th.

The verdict was handed down on Sunday, March 17th.  There was an uproar then too, because a few CNN anchors, namely Candy Crowley, Poppy Harlow and contributor Paul Callan made statements that many felt sympathized with the perpetrators and not the young girl who was sexually assaulted and humiliated. The link to that article can be found here:



Like the CNN anchor, reporter and commentator, Serena was soundly chastised, and rightly so for the first part of her statement:

“Do you think it was fair, what they got? They did something stupid, but I  don’t know. . . ”

If Serena was simply saying what was in her head (without filtering her thoughts), which is what I suspect, then she’s now learned a very valuable lesson. For an adult, and especially one in the public eye, it’s important to understand the implication of what comments mean. In Serena’s case, it’s all the more critical since she takes pride in fighting for women’s equality, as per her apology:

“What happened in Steubenville was a real shock for me. I was deeply saddened. For someone to be raped, and at only sixteen, is such a horrible tragedy! For both families involved – that of the rape victim and of the accused.  I am currently reaching out to the girl’s family to let her know that I am deeply sorry for what was written in the Rolling Stone article. What was written – what I supposedly said – is insensitive and hurtful, and I by no means would say or insinuate that she was at all to blame.

I have fought all of my career for women’s equality, women’s equal rights, respect in their fields – anything I could do to support women I have done. My prayers and support always goes out to the rape victim. In this case, most especially, to an innocent sixteen year old child.”




Now, I’m not her publicist. But this is a highly teachable moment. Much like Paula Deen, whose southern “traditions” were apparently too much to shake off, Serena’s wandering, rambling comments on the Steubenville rape case reveal a kind of “tradition” where females are held to a certain standard.


But I also must repeat again, that both Deen and Williams are entitled to their opinions.


Even Williams apology earned scorn, for as it was pointed out, she used “What was written – what I supposedly said – is insensitive and hurtful, and I by no means would say or insinuate that she was at all to blame.”

Qualifying her statement with “What I supposedly said” read to some as though she wasn’t taking ownership of her words, and thus her apology was no apology at all.


So Serena recently reiterated her earlier apology, according to this article by Toby Davis of Reuters:

“It’s really important before you make certain comments to have a full list, have all the information, all the facts,” she added.

“I reached out to the family immediately once the article came out, and I had a really productive, sincere conversation with the mother and the daughter. We came to a wonderful understanding, and we’re constantly in contact…

“I take full responsibility. I definitely wanted to apologize to the family. They’ve been through so much. In talking to them and learning the whole story, you just learn how strong the young girl is, how strong she’s been able to make me through this process, which I think is incredible.”




To be continued . . .because I’m not done yet.

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