By FARAH STOCKMAN
New York Times News Service
“Fag” was a common insult when I was a kid. In the vocabulary of eighth-grade put-downs, its ubiquitousness was matched only by the thoughtlessness with which we tossed it at everyone. I remember the day a friend explained why it offended him. I felt ashamed, and haven’t used it since.
I thought of that last week after celebrity chef Paula Deen got dropped by her sponsors for admitting that she used the n-word 25 years ago.
She was asked in a court deposition if she had ever used the word in her life.
“Of course,” she replied. She said she probably used it back in 1987, while telling her husband about the man who robbed her at gunpoint. But she insisted she hadn’t said it in a “very long time.”
I’m no fan of Paula Deen, or her deep-fried lasagna. But does it really do any good to burn her at the stake for admitting that she used a term that — odious as it is — was so common in Georgia during her childhood? I worry that our focus on banning a word distracts us from deeper conversations about race.
I also got curious about the lawsuit that sparked her admission: Deen and her little brother Earl “Bubba” Hiers are being sued by a former employee: Lisa T. Jackson, ex-general manager at Uncle Bubba’s Seafood & Oyster House. (Jackson happens to be white.)
Read the depositions, and one thing becomes clear: This lawsuit is about Bubba. Deen’s name is on it because she owns a stake in his restaurant — and because she is the one with all the money.
Bubba admits to drinking on the job, calling his Mexican employee “amigo,” remarking on his waitresses’s bodies, stealing more than $25,000 out of the register, telling a joke about President Obama that used the n-word, going to strip clubs with employees, and viewing porn regularly on the restaurant’s computer.
Senior staff wanted him to reduce his role to signing autographs.
“‘I’ll do whatever y’all want me to do,” Bubba told them. But he kept messing up.
After he shook an African-American cook violently by the shoulders, someone sent a message to Deen, who was on a cruise. Her aides responded: “Tell Bubba to apologize.” Then they promised to send a limo to bring the cook to Deen’s house, where she would personally “make him feel important.”
Something else becomes clear in the court papers: Jackson is a disgruntled employee looking for a check.
She has never heard Deen use racial slurs. The worst thing she says about Deen is that Deen wanted an old-fashioned Southern wedding for Bubba, with black waiters in bow ties. That suggests an unfortunate nostalgia for the “old South.” But when the wedding was held, staff weren’t asked to dress like that.
Jackson never complained about Bubba to Deen. Instead, she wrote a glowing letter to Deen in a bid to gain favor and get more control over the restaurant. The letter expressed gratitude for being given the chance to rise from a $7-an-hour employee to a manager making $114,000.
“At 15, homeless, without parents, and with a young child, my life was headed in a direction no one could ever assume positive,” Jackson wrote in May of 2010. “I have been given opportunities that I never thought possible, all because of you and Bubba.”
Three months later, Jackson realized that Deen wasn’t going to give her control over Bubba’s place, so she quit. The bank foreclosed on her home. According to Deen’s lawyers, she demanded a settlement and threatened to go to the media if she didn’t get it.
Eventually, she filed a $1.25 million lawsuit alleging sexual harassment, racial harassment, assault and battery, and serious stress-induced medical conditions.
Does a white general manager deserve a million bucks because of mistreatment endured by black cooks under her watch?
“That’s a jury’s decision,” Jackson said in her deposition.
But in the court of public opinion, the verdict against Paula Deen has already come down: Guilty, because she said the n-word.
It’s a good thing that we have banned that word. But banishing everyone who admits having used it? Not so much. How many of us can honestly say we never used a word we came to regret?