Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Some Jokes Can't Be Covered in Butter and Sugar

Paula Deen says she can't determine what people might find offensive. (WireImage photo)

It’s supremely perfect that in the English language, “sorry” is meant as an apology and to describe something that is quite pathetic. Because sometimes, apologies are the sorriest things of all.

The latest on the sorry front is Paula Deen, whose name alone can spark arteries to harden. The queen of decadent cooking, the big-haired personification of American indulgence, not only used racist language but made herself look worse by trying to explain it.

Sure, her logic went, she used the N-word. But she used it as a joke, she said in a deposition relating to a discrimination lawsuit filed by a former employee. She also said in the deposition that she taught her children not to use that word in a mean way, as if there magically were some nice ways to use it.

This isn’t yet another piece to hang the Countess of Cholesterol out to dry. She’s just the latest in a long line of people who have this odd notion that if they take some of the rudest, most offensive notions in our culture and make a joke out them, suddenly they magically aren’t offensive anymore.

“I can't, myself, determine what offends another person,” Deen said in the deposition, echoing the same sorry words of so many before her.

In this day and age, how is that possible? I know it happens all the time, but how does one get through life without grasping that using horrible language might just possibly offend someone? Deen’s behavior doesn’t show racism as much as it shows a willful oblivion, an arrogance to never stray from your way of thinking, to never ever see beyond your small butter-slathered world.

I’m a little touchy about the Paula Deen situation. It has nothing to do with the fall of a food icon and everything to do with bringing to the fore the thing that I am ashamed of most in my life – thinking racial things were funny.

Admittedly, this is when I was in high school and not exactly an intellectual. But I was brought up in a very kind and loving household where not only was the N-word banned, so was the use of “redskin.” In grade school, there were no black kids at my school but there were Native American kids and I heard both those words thrown at them as early as the first grade. And I knew it was wrong.

I grew up in a very white area that while not being notably racist, it didn’t keep me from hearing the N-word over the years. I even remember hearing a grown-up I knew and loved talk about the election of Tom Bradley as mayor of Los Angeles, saying that although he wouldn’t want an N-word as his mayor, it’s probably good that a place that had so many of them had one of their own kind to lead them.

Taught to respect my elders, I said nothing, but I was a grade-schooler who knew that was wrong and I still remember what my whole body felt like to hear that. The horror remains to this day.

By the time I got to high school, there were a few black kids at my school. One was in my class and had a couple younger siblings, another was an exchange student from Kenya. I haven’t seen my classmate since high school, but I think of her often. This is a kid who was brave enough in gym class circa 1976 to announce, “I know everybody wants to touch my hair, so you get one chance. Today. If you want to, you can, and don’t ever ask again.”

One of the interesting parts about moving back to my hometown is reconciling my memories of what I thought was reality with the grown-up view of what likely is the truth. I didn’t think much of what life must have been like for my classmate then, but I’d sure like to ask her about it now.

And high school is where my tale of shame begins. It really begins with “Roots,” which was supposed to open our eyes about race in the first place. With me, what started as a smart-aleck remark turned into a way-too-long joke.

With “Roots” being television that gripped the nation, it was what we talked about in school, too. I spun a tale to a classmate that I enjoyed watching this with my family because it was our story, too. I said that I had black relatives on my mom’s side of the family (her maiden name was “Schwarz,” German for “black.”) and it spun from there. He realized my hair was curly – it was a perm – and suddenly believed the story. My friends and I never thought to correct him, and the fact that my favorite foods in the world were, and remain, fried chicken and watermelon only added to the hilarity we saw in this.

And from there it continued to build. There was a nickname of “Kizzy” and gifts of toys like Mammy dolls. Once we began to notice that these toys and products existed we were rather shocked – perhaps foreshadowing the less-dunderheaded adults we would become.

These were jokes but we weren’t racist, we thought. It was just in fun. No big deal.

Then I went to college. Nothing dramatic happened in that anyone discovered this and smacked me down for it; by then it was a joke that had long ended but one in which I still saw no harm. Then, in an indirect way I found myself on the receiving end of the same kind of “joke.”

I had a guy friend, a sweet guy, one with many women friends. He told me how hilarious it was in their dorm that he and some of his friends would go up to the women’s floor and “pretend” that they were boors – chauvinistic and abusive. He said how funny it was that they’d pretend they were going to attack the women and the guys even had a little name for their gang, the make-believe group of guys who thought scaring women and pretending to do them harm was nothing more than a joke.

This guy was my friend, and I know he’d never be part of truly carrying any of that out. But it hit me like an anvil on my head: It wasn’t funny. It didn’t matter if they didn’t really mean it, it wasn’t funny and in fact was rather horrifying. All these years later he is a loving husband and father to a daughter; I suspect he no longer thinks it was funny.

At that moment, I realized our little racist jokes weren’t funny either. To take a part of one person’s identity, something they value such as their race, gender or ethnicity, and turn it into a punch line is the very definition of cruel.

And that’s where I have an issue with Paula Deen and situations like hers. Somewhere along the line in life, how can you not learn something to put you in someone else’s shoes, if only for an instant? As ashamed as I remain about those jokes, I also know that light-bulb moment created the empathic adult I am today. I could never tell this tale and no one would be the wiser and my friends might like me more, but it seems important to me that people realize it’s not just “those people” who make these kinds of mistakes. It’s what happens after that counts.

Sometimes, that includes bad apologies. I’m sorry, I have trouble with apologies that include the word “never meant.” People who miss stop signs and kill people they crash into never meant to do that, yet there are pretty clear and obvious rules that someone shouldn’t do that. Paying attention to other people and their lives shouldn’t be that much different than navigating the signs and symbols that make up our everyday lives, but somehow people always seem to get a pass on that.

And that is as sorry as it gets.