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.

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