Words mean things

I used to work for a South Carolinian who issued colorful quips and witticisms the way most people speak casual greetings.

One of Ben’s favorites was “Words mean things.”

This week the Internet has been abuzz with the controversy surrounding the words used by Southern cooking diva Paula Deen. The brouhaha over Paula’s admission in a deposition that she used the “N” word 25 years ago and her public apologies has been front and center for a week now. In the media I consume, it has overtaken groundbreaking U.S. Supreme Court rulings.

This is a controversy born of the New South. As recently as maybe 15 or 20 years ago, this would not have been news. But in the New South, sensitivities to racial issues take on greater importance.

What is contemporary about this flap, is that people are retreating from Paula because of the perception that she hasn’t really gotten beyond the meaning behind words from long ago. Even while she is apologizing, there is a hint, an undertone, that Paula doesn’t really understand why people think she could be a racist.

NBC's Matt Lauer interviews Paula Deen on "Today" Wednesday morning.
NBC’s Matt Lauer interviews Paula Deen on “Today” Wednesday morning.

While Paula Deen has used a lot of words this week – probably too many – she has sent mixed messages. In saying “I’m sorry” and “I is what I is” she has given her detractors room to work, to interpret the meanings of these words in ways she may not have intended.

The setting here does make a big difference. Savannah is, in many ways, the capital of the Old South, and Paula is its ceremonial queen. If this former employee who brought the lawsuit wanted to bring Paula down, she has already succeeded whether or not her allegations of harassment are true.

Yes, we have all said things we regret. Yes, we all carry with us biases the origin of which even we ourselves cannot explain. And, yes, if on the defensive, any of us could sound unintentionally racist. But what I take away from this situation with Paula Deen is that once you have the racist label attached to you, it’s hard to convince people otherwise, no matter what words you use.

As this situation continues to play out, fueled by Paula’s missteps with the media, she will have her share of detractors and admirers. There’s nothing all that new or unusual about people lining up on opposite sides of an issue, particularly in these very partisan times.

Is Paula sincere? Yes, I believe she is. Does she understand why people are so upset? Maybe. Does she know how to get out of this mess and move on? No, I don’t believe she does.

The lesson from Paula’s downfall that all of us non-cooking show icons can take is that in contemporary society our words can more easily destroy than build up. And regardless of what offensive things we may say, if our comments reflect racism, it is nearly impossible to convince people otherwise.

Why can’t we all just get along? When it comes to race, there’s simply too much history. Words mean things.

Based on what I’m reading on other blogs and the comments on news stories, I ask only that as you share your thoughts on New South Essays, you do so respectfully. I’d love to hear why you are supporting Paula or why you can’t, and if you have any advice that could help her negotiate these waters any better. As always, thanks for your input!

6 thoughts on “Words mean things

  1. Lance, I love Ben’s “words mean something” phrase that you used so perfectly to capture all this. What she said did mean something – while we can forgive, I do not forget. I will now be mindful of this forever. From now on, I respect her recipes, but I have lost some respect for her. I hope she will learn from this.

  2. Having taught in a public high school in the south, I was well aware of how important the “words” I used were.

  3. If any of us thinks for a minute that our personal success at being more thoroughly careful with our words than Mrs. Deen means that we are actually liberated from the categorical thinking about others which defines racism, well…

    The word delusional means something too.

    As always Lance, well done.

  4. Words do mean something, but they seem to mean one thing if said by a white person and something else entirely if said by a person of color. If a word is so offensive (and I DO believe it is extremely offensive) that uttering it 30 years ago can destroy the life of the person who said it, it should be so offensive that NOBODY would use it. Great job, Lance. This is a very thoughtful and respectfully presented article on an important issue that is sensitive and, at times, confusing.

  5. I like what my sister posted a few days ago “I’ll bet you five pounds of butter Paula Deen didn’t know she was so popular, move on!” Media is responsible for a high percentage of her downfall, if you can’t take the heat, stay outta the….well, kitchen!

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