Words, Words, Words: Paula Deen, Trayvon Martin, and Gay Marriage

What do Paula Deen, the late Trayvon Martin, and the fight over gay marriage have in common?  Words.  Paula Deen’s use of the “n-word” 50 some-odd years ago and how it makes her unworthy of corporate sponsorship and a television career.  Trayvon Martin’s use of the “c-word” (cracker…not the BAD c-word) and how it may have brought about his untimely death.  And the Supreme Court deciding the federal government can’t discriminate financially against 2 people of the same gender who are “g.m.-word.”

Let’s start with Mrs. Deen, who, in the past week, was been the brunt of perhaps the most stupendous fall from glory we’ve ever seen from a celebrity chef.  The media seems most interested in whether or not she has used the “n-word,” and seemed horrifically appalled when when she said, “Of course.”  Honestly, there aren’t many of us in the US that can claim otherwise, and the real question should have been “Have you ever used the n-word with hate.”

I’m about fed up with our country’s obsession over words.  Words have no power.  PEOPLE give power to words.  By focusing so much stigma on this “n-word” all we do is continue to give it supernatural evil powers.  No word, in and of itself, has the power to do anything.  When we make such a drastic scene out of someone using a word, all we do is perpetuate the perception of power that word has.

Similarly…racist jokes.  Some people get deeply, horrifically offended by them.  Personally, I’m ALL FOR racist jokes, because they rob racism of its power.  Same with sexist jokes.  And homophobic jokes.  When we can all laugh at an issue, instead of get bound up in angst and offense over them, we’re a step closer to that issue not existing any more.

I might go so far as to say that the equality groups that work SO HARD toward equality are as guilty of perpetuating racism as pro-racist groups are.  When we continue to view humans in categories…black…female….gay…Christian…Democrat, we promote continued division and inequality.  These celebrations of “feminist pride” and “gay pride” and “black pride” simply keep us at arm’s length from each other.  It’s only when we STOP identifying as a minority group and start identifying as part of a single human community that we will ever reach true equality for everyone.

None of us know Paula Deen, so I’m not comfortable making a judgement call on her.  (I wouldn’t be comfortable doing that ANYWAY…it’s not any human’s place to judge another, unless you’re forced into that job as an actual judge.)  I do know people, black people among them, that have worked with her in a production capacity who say she’s delightful.  And for those of us who’ve watched her for years, it’s hard to suddenly imagine her as the worst racist tyrant in the food industry.  Paula is one of the few celebrity chefs reputed to be the exact same person on camera as she is off.

(Let us also not forget that the media is sensationalizing only a part of the allegations against Mrs. Deen.  There will be a trial to determine if her restaurants have actively enforced a pattern of racist and/or sexist discrimination, and none of us should pass judgement on her until a jury does.  Also, I doubt Paula Deen has a clue what happens in her restaurants.  She is a celebrity chef now.  Virtually EVERY celebrity chef/restarateur has been accused of employee abuse…financially, verbally, etc.  Do you think Gordon Ramsay has time to set foot in ANY of his restaurants more than a few days a year?  Does his name over the door make him responsible for the behavior of his managers and employees?)

In a recent interview, Paula expresses horror over how the young people in her kitchens talk to each other.  And if you are sensitive to racism, sexism, or homophobia, you should NEVER set foot in a restaurant kitchen.  It is the least politically-correct place on planet earth.  (Behind the military, of course.)  Not out of hatred, mind you.  But out of the playful jabbing and jesting that naturally occur when people work together under extreme stress in extreme conditions.  (Sort of like reality TV.)  I can’t count the number of times that my dear friends Adrien Nieto and Christian Collins have called me a “faggot” and teased me about about an unnatural obsession with sausage.  Was this done out of hatred?  Of course not.  Would a sensitive bystander take offense and want to rush to my rescue and hustle these guys to court for a hate crime?  Needlessly, yes.  Neither Adrien nor Christian has a homophobic bone in their entire body.  So their words are the result of the natural playful sparring that comes out of camaraderie.  (It’s really no different than tickling.)  Their words have no negative power, because I don’t grant them negative power, and they weren’t uttered with negative intent.  But had someone happened to secretly videotape such conversations, it might horrify the wrong room full of people…enough to ruin reputations and lose sponsors.  (If any existed.)

The most racist thing I’m going to say in this blog is that many white people absolutely LOVE to be offended on behalf of minorities.  It’s intoxicating for them.  We have YET to see any African Americans make allegations against Paula…these allegations are brought by a Caucasian woman who is offended on behalf of Paula’s black employees.  Of course, regardless of whether the allegations are true or not, this lady is going to claim “I’m speaking for those who are too scared to speak for themselves.”  But all these -isms only become -isms when there’s a closed circle…racism cannot exist unless there are victims on the other end of the equation to take offense or be harmed.  When my partner and I are holding hands in a park and some frat boys cat-call at us and hurl the “f-word” around…we don’t need to charge them with a hate crime, because frankly we don’t care about what they say.  There’s no homophobia.  Because we don’t complete the equation and allow ourselves to feel hurt or threatened by it.  We laugh at them and shout, “You know, it boys!  Wanna come over tonight?”  And it becomes a joke, no one gets hurt or offended, and the frat boys realize they have lost their power and slink away.

Another moment comes to mind from the time that all my fans were riled up about the semi-automatic weapons issue on my Facebook page during the holidays.  I was crucified by one woman when I referred to her as “sweetheart.”  She was supremely offended that I would be so sexist towards her.  Where I come from, “sweetheart” is a term of affection that my mama taught me to use out of respect and love toward women.  Yet this woman was deeply, supremely offended by it, and took the chance to forever label me a male chauvinist pig before she blocked me.  The ONLY capacity in which I am sexist is my belief that women are superior to men in almost every aspect.  She interpreted sexism where there was none.  So there WAS none, because the equation wasn’t complete.

The way I look at it, Paula Deen grew up steeped in a culture of segregation and racism.  It is inextricably intertwined in her life in a way that no one who is 30 years old and grew up in a cultural melting pot on the east or west coast could ever imagine.  In my heart, I want to believe that Mrs. Deen witnessed the racial separatism that was EVERYWHERE when she was a child, and is happy at how far we’ve come since then.  I want to believe that Paula is a good person with a playful personality who tosses friendly jabs at her coworkers the same way they do at her.  And I personally don’t care if she ever used the “n-word,” provided it wasn’t said with malice or hatred.  Because words have NO power unless that power is granted to them by humans.  And the “n-word” only becomes horrible when it is delivered with hatred, and received with fear.  If either end of that equation holds any different value…the word is no different from “butter” or “cloud” or “asparagus.”

Which brings me to the Trayvon Martin murder trial that’s happening right now, and how desperately I laughed at the Defense as he was questioning Trayvon’s best friend, Rachel Jeantel, who was on the phone with Trayvon until moments before he died.  Trayvon had told Rachel that he was being followed in the pouring rain by a “creepy cracker.”  The Defense was trying to spin this as a hate-filled racial slur that triggered George Zimmerman to defend himself in fear of his life.  The Defense acted truly shocked when Rachel said that she didn’t consider the word “cracker” to be racist at all.  (That’s simply what folks in her world call white people.)  And as offended as the Defense may be by that, if it’s not delivered with hate, it’s not racist and it has no power…even if he receives it with fear and offense.  Because the equation works both ways.

A similar principle is at work in the gay marriage debate that culminated last week in the Supreme Court’s decision that the Federal government must treat legally married gay couples the same as heterosexual married couples when dealing with issues of taxation.  The reverend Pat Robertson, and many people around the country on BOTH sides of this issue, misinterpreted the ruling to mean that the government has sanctioned gay marriage, and Mr. Robertson was quick to prophesy that God will rain down fire and brimstone upon the United States of America for this decision, just like he did on Sodom and Gomorrah.  (Sort of weird that he hasn’t done this with any of the other nations that actually legalized gay marriage, like France, Brazil, Canada, South Africa, etc.)

The actual debate over this issue is so silly, it makes me laugh.  Because it’s about different perceptions of a word: “marriage.”  The Supreme Court’s decision was about TAXES.  Nothing else.  And as far as state and federal governments are concerned, the word marriage is primarily about taxes and finances…a little bit about child custody…and that’s pretty much the limit of it.  While, for religious folk, the term “marriage” is inextricably wound up in spirituality and faith.  Any Christian objecting to gay marriage will inevitably cite Levitical verses about how much God hates homosexuality, and how he can only sanction and bless a marriage between a woman and man.  Yet they don’t seem uncomfortable recognizing a marriage between atheists (who do not define their marriage from a spiritual perspective), or between Hindus or Buddhists, who (according to the Bible) are following false gods.

I, personally, am not one of those folks who desperately wants to have the word “marriage” assigned to my 11-year partnership.  Because it’s just a word.  It has no power and no meaning unless I personally give it that.  (And I can personally give that power to ANY old term you’d like to give me that states I get the same treatment under tax law that my married neighbor does.  Anyone who is desperate to have that word apply to their relationship is giving too much power to a word.)

But I DO want to have the same LAWS apply to my 11-year partnership that the newlyweds across the street are governed under.  It makes no sense in my brain that a different set of laws would apply to me…than apply to any other American.  How is THAT an American concept?  Perhaps it’s a Biblical concept, depending on which part of the Bible you emphasize.  But we don’t live in the United Church of America.  This country is filled with people of all religions and no religions.  To treat ANY AMERICAN differently under the law is decidedly un-American.

So, to Pat Robertson and everyone else who stringently objects to gay marriage…I’m not asking for YOUR version of the word “marriage.”  The god you worship wouldn’t recognize it, anyway.  Though the god many other Christians worship certainly would.  (Isn’t that strange?  They are, in fact, the same god, according to the Bible.  Perhaps we are making god in OUR image?)  I’m asking for the government to treat me under the exact same laws as you are treated.  Because our government is not a church.  It treats Muslims and Zoroastrians the same way it does Christians and atheists.

So next time you start to get all riled up about issues like these…stop for a moment and ask yourself if this is all really about words.  And remember that words have NO power unless you grant them that power yourself.  If someone makes a remark to you with hatred behind it…it’s your choice whether to give that person the power to upset you with that word.  I seriously doubt that Paula Deen is spewing hatred at anyone.  (If she was, I would imagine that person would seek out another job.  Cooking jobs are a dime a dozen.  And they don’t pay very well ANYWHERE.)  My gut tells me that this “whistleblower” is yet another of those many white people who are on the edge of their chairs, waiting for that penultimate moment when they can be supremely, deeply offended to the core…on behalf of someone else…someone who witnessed playful bantering among compatriots and is so set on ending racism forever that they continue to perpetuate it by giving power to words that were never delivered with hate.

But let’s just say, to play Devil’s Advocate, that Paula Deen is the most horrid, hate-filled racist in all the American South.  For that matter, let’s also blame her for ALL the diabetes and heart disease in this country.  (Many people do, which is laughably ridiculous.)  Have we lost the ability to forgive when someone apologizes sincerely?  When someone desperately wants to change?  As a culture, we love to crucify someone and watch with glee as they fall.  (Why else would MasterChef be turning into Hell’s Kitchen?)  We seem incapable of forgiveness.  We seem to think that people remain static their whole lives and never have a change of heart.  And we never give them the chance to do so.

I’ve been writing this blog for a week, I’ve deleted it and started over, I’ve rewritten big chunks of it over and over again, because I know some of you out there are going to be supremely offended by all these WORDS I’ve written down.  So it’s not as cohesive as my normal writing.  But the biggest points I want to get across in this rambling and disjointed diatribe are these:

-Racism, sexism, homophobia, and other types of minority persecution will NEVER END as long as we continue to gather ourselves into groups to support our cause and celebrate our uniqueness.  Because we are separating ourselves.  When “minorities” of any sort stop pooling with their “own kind” and start integrating themselves as proud humans into neighborhoods, marriages, churches, and workplaces…revealing their humanity to their neighbors and coworkers through budding friendships…that’s when progress begins.

-We could all stand to be a little more forgiving.  That goes for corporations, too, who are sometimes trigger happy to kill their relationships with people they believe will give them a bad image.  Paula Deen has brought joy into the lives of millions of people for many decades.  Let’s not be so quick to throw her out like last week’s leftovers, especially if she offers a heartfelt apology.

-Words have no power unless you give that power to them.  If something is said with hatred, you don’t have to receive it as such.  If something is said that initially triggers offense in you, it may not have been delivered with intended hatred, and you still don’t have to receive it as such.  Hatred only has power when you allow it to.

Now what words do YOU have to say about all this?  Please comment below.

106 Responses to Words, Words, Words: Paula Deen, Trayvon Martin, and Gay Marriage

  1. Ben, as you probably know, AV Club recap commenters often mention your blog, and I’ve checked in from time to time, as I was a fan of you on Masterchef. I had to check back when someone wrote about their disappointment in you “defending racism”. From everything I’ve seen on your site, you’re obviously an awesome guy, but a lot of what you say on this particular issue comes off as blaming the victim, as if the targets of racist comments are just as responsible as the bullies for this ugly racism that continues to divide America (which is does, as poll results on the Trayvon Martin case show). I’m glad you’re strong enough to let discrimination roll off your back, but not everyone is so self-confident and strong. Anyway, the guy above me said it better than I ever could. Racism sucks, and I’m sure you don’t want to throw yourself in with people like this: (From the “Yo Is This Racist?” blog yesterday) “Somebody on facebook (she is white) just told me it’s not racist for her to say the n-word because according to her, “racism is real only if you give it power”. Obviously racist, but since when did people start thinking that this shit works like The Matrix?”

    • David, I don’t believe ANY words are racist. Any of them. Just like I don’t believe any words are sexist or homophobic. PEOPLE are racist. PEOPLE are homophobic. PEOPLE are sexist. Words are just words. Period. It is US who choose to give them power. And this means we also have the ability to NOT give them power. I don’t think what your friend said is racist. Honestly, I’ve heard more things that could be interpreted as racist come from the mouths of people who CLEARLY ARE NOT RACIST simply because they don’t make a distinction between racial groups and don’t give racism any credence. They are NOT racist…they are, in fact, the farthest thing from racist. Farther, in fact, than racial equality groups. When people stop giving a flying f-ck about division between groups of humans…that’s when racism will be dead. Not when we stop using the N-word. As long as we continue to identify humans in separate groups, there will be racism, sexism, homophobia, religious judgements, etc.

  2. Hi, Ben. I’m an avid reader of your blog, but this is my first time commenting, mainly because I disagree with you sufficiently regarding your views on words:

    1) “Words have no power. PEOPLE give power to words. […] When we make such a drastic scene out of someone using a word, all we do is perpetuate the perception of power that word has.”

    The power of words is dependent on its context. My argument, then, is that some people make “a drastic scene out of someone using a word” more than others because of the context in which they are living in. Paula Deen grew up during the Civil War in America and therefore lived through racism to know that the word “nigger” connotes hatred for someone racially inferior. The word “nigger” is firmly entrenched in a historical and cultural baggage of hatred for people to now, in 2013, consider it an offensive word. Anyone, in 2013, has the right to take legal action against its usage.

    Similarly, to you, the word “sweetheart” is used in an endearing manner because of the context in which you grew up in, i.e. the South. Not everyone grows up in the South. Ergo, anyone has the right to perceive the word “sweetheart” as sexist because not everyone grew up in the South. You also make, what is to me, an unfair comparison between Paula’s use of the word “nigger” and Adrien’s use of the word “faggot.” Paula used “nigger” in a professional context. Adrien used “faggot” in a personal context. It is easier for you to be less offended by the joke because you are not in a position of inferiority. The power dynamics of a friendship is different from the power dynamics of an employer-employee relationship.

    When one uses a word, one ought to be conscious of the context in which it is being used. To assume that the recipient of one’s word will interpret it through the same lens that one is using is presumptuous.

    2) “Racist jokes rob racism of its power.”

    Racist jokes may rob racism of its power, but it can also perpetuate ignorance and prejudice. I have had friends who made racist jokes about how inconvenient it is for them to eat out with me because of my dietary restrictions as a Muslim. Most of the time, I let it slide. However, if someone goes so far as to shove pork into my mouth, to make fun of the fact that I do not eat pork as a Muslim, that perpetuates ignorance and prejudice, unless I react against such behaviour. The person shoving pork into my mouth, thinking of it as a joke, is disrespectful to the fact that pork is Haram in Islam, and ignorant as to why that is so.

    There is a tenuous line between a racist joke and an insult. If you don’t know where the line ought to be drawn, don’t make the joke to begin with.

    3) “I might go so far as to say that the equality groups that work SO HARD toward equality are as guilty of perpetuating racism as pro-racist groups are.”

    Following your logic, Mulligan’s Manor is as guilty of perpetuating discrimination against homosexual children as group-homes who choose to discriminate against them. Does that mean they should stop identifying themselves as a group-home prioritizing the socio-economic needs of homosexual children? Would you go so far as to say that it is “intoxicating” for the founders of Mulligan’s Manor to stand up for these unfairly marginalized children?

    4) “none of us should pass judgement on her until a jury does. […] I want to believe that Paula is a good person with a playful personality who tosses friendly jabs at her coworkers […] We could all stand to be a little more forgiving. […] Let’s not be so quick to throw her out like last week’s leftovers, especially if she offers a heartfelt apology.”

    Until a prosecutor / jury has failed to prove, beyond reasonable doubt, that she is guilty of the allegations charged against her, it is not in my place to forgive her, or to think of her apology as “heartfelt.”

  3. I love you Ben but I can’t get through this article. Words have power because they have traditionally been associated with abuses by the most powerful, something I know you are againt. Racist jokes often uphold racism instead of challenging it, and as white people it’s not even our place to comment on the power of racist jokes. The people of color who experience racism must lead the way, and we must follow.

    I’ll let you know that saying the “n word” “fifty years ago” is not what Paula Deen is in trouble for. She’s in trouble for creating actively hostile racist work spaces, in the here and now. She behaves in a horrific manner and then covers it up with her manufactured clueless Southerner personality. I am shocked to see you defending this. You’re about integrity and compassion and so am I, which is one of the reasons I am voraciously reading your entire blog one post after another. So I am saddened to see you insist that things cut both ways. They absolutely do not cut both ways and I encourage you, especially in the case of Trayvon Martin, to seek out and actively listen to black voices speaking about the very real violence, big and small, that is carried out against them every day and how it must feel to come across yet another blog post from a well meaning white person about how words have no power.

    I am a writer and a person with disadvantages. Words have immense power, even to the point where some linguists and scientists have suggested we can’t even consider a concept if we have no words to describe it. In cases of racism you are coming from a place of white power and supremacy, even though you as a person would never claim to uphold those ideals. We did not craft this society personally but we nonetheless benefit from it and we have a moral duty to stop opining on racism and let people of color speak.

    • Tiger, you may have missed the part in the blog about how the REAL way to end racism is for people to stop grouping together with “their own kind,” move into the hornet’s nest, and let people connect with them in meaningful ways. It’s easy for a devout Christian to hate and fear homosexuals…until they discover their child is homosexual. It’s easy for someone in a gated white community to hate and fear black people if they are raised that way…until a black family moves next door, their kids become friends, and they discover that they are NO different from themselves, and grow to trust and love them. It’s easy for someone in today’s global culture to hate and fear Muslims…until they discover that the coworker they’ve been working with for 10 years is Muslim and discusses with them the true tenets of their faith.

      I absolutely ABHOR the phrase, “I have _______ friends, so I understand.” Insert whatever minority group you want in there. But EVERY black friend I have has zero problems with racist jokes. Every gay friend I have has zero problems with gay jokes. I listen to minority voices every day of my life. I live in a neighborhood where *I* am the minority, both for my color and my sexuality.

      As long as we continue to give hateful power to words, racism will NEVER end. Period.

      Regarding this statement: “She behaves in a horrific manner and then covers it up with her manufactured clueless Southerner personality.” Have you worked for her? Or are you repeating the allegations? NONE of this has been decided in court. Practically NONE of the people who are supposedly the subject of these crimes have come forward to confirm the allegations by the white lady who filed the suit. I prefer to wait until a trial has concluded to make assumptions like this, and I prefer to judge NO ONE, even after being convicted of a crime, because that’s not my place. I was put on this world to love everyone. So were you. So were all of us. Regardless of your religious beliefs or lack thereof. Even when we see things we interpret as “evil,” if we’ll turn around and put the effort into doing GOOD, rather than to condemning that evil, less evil will exist.

      If all these people furious about Paula Deen’s behavior would take all the effort they’ve spent into discussing this issue, blogging about it, screaming about it on social media…and instead spend that time doing something GOOD for someone who needs it…we’d already be ahead of where we are now. I’m just fed up with people reaching out to condemn anyone. No one ever has any business doing that but a judge and jury. THEY are the ones who take care of crimes and pass down punishments. It’s our job to love. EVERYONE. Including the condemned. Who need love more than ANY of us, if they’re going to be healed.

  4. Are you SERIOUS! REALLY! Words do have power no matter how you use them. You see nothing wrong with making sexist or racist jokes WOW!That’s whats wrong with the world
    Proverbs 18:21
    Ephesians 4:29

    • Tyler, this world is a big place, and only some folks who inhabit it are Christian. I do not build my world view on the Bible or any other literary or religious work. I do my best to base it on universal truths, of which there are VERY few. I do see NOTHING wrong with making sexist or racist jokes because, as I’ve said a dozen times on this thread, humor robs an issue of its power. (So while I very rarely tell jokes of any kind, I don’t chastise people for making them, and I think they are a VERY healthy way to allow people to decompress over an issue that might otherwise be very sensitive.) When people are quick to be offended by racism or sexism or homophobia, we perpetuate these institutions. It is only when you ALLOW words to have power that they have power. This may not be a Christian concept, but it is a TRUE concept. It is scientifically accurate. A word, in and of itself, holds absolutely no power over anyone or anything. Only when you assign a concept to that word does it have any meaning…and only if you allow yourself to be irritated or offended or hurt by it, did it have any “effectiveness.” If you don’t allow yourself to be hurt or offended or irritated, you rob the word of its power. If everyone did this, we’d stop having to have this RIDICULOUS fight over what words are acceptable and what are not. ALL words are acceptable. Because they are combinations of letters and sounds, nothing more. Sometimes it is appropriate and necessary to allow words to have power for good. But NEVER is it appropriate to allow words to have power for evil. Even if someone delivers a word with hate, YOU have the ability to not receive it that way. That’s one of the only ways to kill racism. Continue to obsess over racist words and jokes…and you’ll continue to perpetuate the separation that causes racism in the first place. That’s the Truth.

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