Nigger is a nasty word. Like any other word, there’s nothing offensive about those particular letters strung together. It’s the connotation, and this one has a history as ugly as any. It has been spit out with venom and hatred, with whipping, chains, and every kind of inhumanity.
I don’t know how Paula Deen said the word. I don’t imagine she said it playfully or in kindness. Maybe she is racially prejudiced. Gasp. Truth is, a lot of us are. And certainly we’re all prejudiced in one way or another. We all have nasty slurs lurking in our brains, some of them nursed, some showing up out of nowhere, maybe even taking us by surprise. We don’t always know, or aren’t willing to admit, what’s hidden in the back of our darkest closets.
Paula Deen is from the deep South, the place with a history we, as a country, would like to forget. Maybe it reminds us of who we are or who we can sometimes be. Old habits die hard. They don’t always keep up with the times or evolve as quickly as we’d like.
So Paula let the N word slip. And now we’re persecuting her like nobody’s business. Forget that we were buying her pots, frying up her donut burgers, and tuning in so she could entertain us Southern style.
Paula, we’ve discovered you are fatally flawed. Now we won’t promote your wares or cook your stuff. We won’t watch you anymore. Public opinion can make you or break you. Better to find yourself on the right side of the line of fire. I sure couldn’t survive.
So I’m glad it’s not me. I’m glad no one is stringing out my life on the media clothesline, parsing my words, magnifying my flaws. I’m glad I’m not the one being incinerated, an effigy, an example of what happens to those who cross the line of public opinion.
But then, I’m not saying or doing anything that isn’t supported by a decent majority — one that’s willing to speak up, that is. Whew.
Does Paula Deen deserve a public tongue lashing, a media fest, a personal hashtag for her indiscretion? Probably. Does she deserve to have her sponsorships pulled, her career destroyed? I don’t know. I won’t name any names, but many public figures have gotten away with far worse. Maybe they were better looking or more charming. Who knows, maybe she, too, will rise like a phoenix from the media ash heap. Publicity has magical powers.
In some respects it’s a good way for society to keep its citizens in check, a kind of modern Scarlet Letter. But I can’t help picturing a mob pushing its victim out in front, shouting, “Crucify her!” And I can’t help wondering if that could, or would, ever be me.