Why hasn't Paula Deen apologized?

Her racist past is bad, but her current cowardice is just as shocking -- though she says a statement is coming soon

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published June 21, 2013 3:25PM (EDT)

Paula Deen           (AP/Nick Ut)
Paula Deen (AP/Nick Ut)

Since the long-simmering revelations about Paula Deen's history of casual, clueless racism broke earlier this week -- her admission that "Yes, of course" she'd used racial epithets and cast African-American wait staff to represent "a certain era in America" for a wedding -- the public response has ranged from outrage to mockery to disgusted lack of surprise to inevitable, trollish justifications.  Everyone, it seems, has a strong opinion about Paula Deen's past behavior. Everyone but Deen, that is. The cholesterol-loving chef and Food Network star has been remarkably circumspect in the past few days – at precisely the moment the Georgia native should have been speaking out. And it's her rigid retreat that's added an extra and entirely unnecessary layer of ugliness to the debacle.

On Friday morning, Deen was scheduled to appear on the "Today" show, but at the last minute, Matt Lauer announced, "We just found out she's a no-show." He added that everything had seemed a go for an "an open and candid discussion, no holds barred" interview when he'd spoken to her Thursday, but now her representative had simply said she was "exhausted."

Deen may well be "exhausted" after a week of intense scrutiny and criticism. And living as we do in poisonous, crackpot times, she may also have been threatened and feared for her safety if she showed up. But a last-minute cancellation and a flimsy excuse, via a representative, is no way to handle a situation in which you already look arrogant and out of touch.

The "Today" cancellation is just the latest of Deen's exasperating missteps. On Thursday, Paula Deen Enterprises sent a statement to TMZ saying, "During a deposition where she swore to tell the truth, Ms. Deen recounted having used a racial epithet in the past, speaking largely about a time in American history which was quite different than today." As TMZ helpfully points out, Deen has admitted using the word after she was robbed at gunpoint in ye olden tymes of 1986. 

The statement goes on to say that Deen "was born 60 years ago when America's South had schools that were segregated, different bathrooms, different restaurants and Americans rode in different parts of the bus. This is not today. To be clear Ms. Deen does not find acceptable the use of this term under any circumstance by anyone nor condone any form of racism or discrimination."

Reminder: Paula Deen is paying someone money to write this stuff. Where to begin with what's wrong with this? Let's start with the half-assed qualifier that she was born in the South in the 1940s. No doubt she grew up hearing racist terminology used so openly and commonly it didn't register as racist; no doubt she has been exposed to a very romantic view of that "certain era" in history – you know, the one where you could still buy and sell human beings. That's where she comes from. But if a person is truly interested in making amends – assuming here that Deen is – she shouldn't be sloughing off her accountability by blaming her times or her geography. Context matters, but deflecting culpability should never be your first talking point.

And then for the kicker, to come up with, in the face of very serious evidence of an incredibly callous attitude and dehumanizing behavior, the mealy-mouthed statement that you don't "condone racism"? Are you kidding me? Because you're going to have to go pretty far into extremist nutbag territory to find someone who would publicly say, sure, "I totally condone racism. Racism, yep, all for it!"

Saying you don't "condone" racism says nothing, proves nothing, does nothing. Instead it just suggests you don't even know what racism is. Deen's statement simply acknowledges that there was a time when people of color rode on a different section of the bus and at the time Deen didn't really think much of it, but it's not like that now and she wouldn't approve of it if it were. In other words, it's pure useless gibberish.

Deen is currently in the throes of a sexual and racial harassment lawsuit  brought by a former manager at her Uncle Bubba’s Seafood and Oyster House who claims "numerous acts of violence, discrimination and racism," so she's likely being encouraged to say as little as possible beyond her lawyer's declaration that "She is looking forward to her day in court." But in the meantime, her reputation grows more tainted with every calculated statement of nonsense her representatives release.

Should Deen even summon up the gumption to take a crack at a genuine act of atonement, she could start by ditching the intermediaries and do the speaking in her own plain, direct voice. She could express the understanding that her words and attitudes were hurtful and demeaning. Sure, she could acknowledge that she didn't understand that they were at the time, but the important thing is to show that she does now. And then she could offer a direct and tangible course of action for doing better in the future and working to enlighten others and diminish our stunning national glut of racial ignorance. What will ultimately be either the redemption or demise of Deen's career isn't the revelation that she's been so insensitive in the past. It will be whether she continues to behave like such a coward right now.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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