Paula Deen’s unlikely empire continues to crumble like the crust of one of her flakier deep-fried creations, and each new announcement of a corporate sponsor jumping ship seems to torture her fans as if they’d been tasered by the language police. This is, actually, pretty much how they view the collapse of Paula’s brand: a ginned-up fake scandal perpetrated by the liberal media to… Well. It’s never exactly clear who supposedly profits in this conspiracy theory. Maybe Michael Moore and George Soros have always wanted to be black, and this is the next best thing? Hard to say.
What is clear is that most of her fanbase believes she’s been wronged. Yes, the theory goes, she said the dreaded N Word once, or twice, maybe, but that was a long time ago, and she wasn’t saying it to a black person, and whatever happened to freedom of speech? Besides, her words were taken completely out of context!
Anyone who paid any actual attention to this scandal would have quickly learned that Deen was accused of racial and sexual harassment and discrimination, repeatedly, recently, while helping run the seafood restaurant of her brother Bubba Hiers. But it’s the “context” defense that’s the real tell here: like lawyers, racism apologists have taken to redefining the most basic of concepts, moving the goalposts, to use a sports metaphor, until racism loses its stigma. Nothing is offensive if you redefine offensiveness.
Take, for example, Dilbert creator Scott Adams, who took to his blog to defend Deen soon after the scandal broke. Using the word “context” no fewer than nine times, he attempted to defend the TV host, not on general principles of forgiveness — although her rather vague original apology was treated as if it should have answered all questions — but on casting doubts that her racist attitudes even existed. You can read the post here, but it’s fair to sum up his points concisely, using as many of his own words as possible:
1. Her racism was allegedly directed at people she knew and or worked with, which makes it a “strange pattern for a racist.”
2. Adams has himself owned two restaurants, and therefore believes that “90% of employee discrimination claims in the restaurant industry are complete bullshit.”
3. As a youth, Adams noticed that “all jokes were at the expense of one ethnic group or another.” (He includes “blonde women, farmer’s daughters, lepers, and dead babies” in those ethnic groups.)
4. Deen’s now-infamous “little niggers” allegation “sounds laughably implausible” to the cartoonist, who offers, by way of context, a “recent Internet hoax showing a photo of Heineken banners over a dog fight.”
This is the very definition of prejudice. Adams rushes to Deen’s side armed with a fake statistic, anecdotal “evidence,” a false analogy, and the “rape joke” defense, all the while stressing heavily that he’s not racist. He also claims that Paula should get a pass for being “a product of her environment,” which is eerily similar to her legal team’s defense: “She 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.”
Defending Paula Deen doesn’t necessarily make Scott Adams a racist. Being an old white lady from a family in Savannah, Georgia that once owned slaves doesn’t prove you’re a racist, either. But as Southerners would say, the horse was already out of the barn at that point: the most damning part of the deposition revealed Deen’s own desire to hold a plantation-style wedding staffed by nothing but black men. Jackson’s sexual discrimination lawsuit claims Paula referred to these men as “little niggers.” Deen, under cross examination, admits to the plantation idea, referring to the costumed waiters she wanted only as “like slaves… From the Civil War.” At that point, you pretty much have all the context you need. Adams refused to believe she’d ever said the word in a way he himself would consider offensive, but some ideas are offensive, too. (Another example: An interview from last year where Deen said that slave owners themselves were not prejudiced because slaves “were like our family.”)
Her own attempt to move the racial goalposts was another offense. In a classic case of blaming the victim, she created a new racial context that played on white people’s pre-established narrative on black people. According to her, there were but three times in her life that she came in contact with the infamous word, all of which she attempted to explain away by shifting blame to blacks and black culture:
1. She was robbed by a black man, but only used the word after, in recounting the incident to her husband.
2. Her husband told her a joke using the n-word, which she presumably laughed at.
3. She once recounted an incident in which one black man used the word to describe another black man.
Note that at no time does Paula say the word to (or even near) a black person. The context is always one which most white folks — but not most black ones — would consider inoffensive. She manages to reinforce her martyrdom amongst her base by playing down to their worst image of blacks: they’re a threat, they don’t respect each other, and being a minority group, they’re pretty funny. Welcome to the new context.
Her supporters, taking her cue, decry this scandal as a witch hunt and a threat to freedom of speech, thereby creating a phony persecution by America’s own new context: a non-white majority. And this recontextualization is also false. For one thing, speech that’s bought and paid for isn’t free: if Americans really believe in voting with their dollars, they’re absolutely allowed to buy her self-published cookbook or watch a podcast she streams herself.
As for witch hunts, they are by definition an attempt to brand someone as something they’re not. If Paula Deen had actually been accused of witchery, her defense would have translated into a tearful public square “apology” about how she’d only given the preacher’s daughter epilepsy because he’d tried to steal her cows. And besides, mortals are funny. They call each other witches all the time. It’d be great if we could have a party where we kill their crops and have sex with the Devil, just like in the old days. But please don’t take any of this out of context.