The Paula Deen Debacle

Jun. 24, 2013

This morning I was watching the Judge Mathis show and the defendent, a young black woman who appeared to be in her 30's, referred to her employer as "boss man".  It was not until I heard those words being used on national television in 2013 that I realized that I find the term "boss man" more offensive than the "N" word because it takes me back to a time that I don't ever want to see again - a time when black men and women had to show respect to the lowest of white people.  

This show, coupled with the all of the recent hoopla about Paula Deen, has brought back so many memories. 

I too was born in 1947, not in the south, but in Johnstown, PA a small town about 60 miles south of Pittsburgh. The main employer was the now defunct Bethlehem Steel Corporation; my father, uncles, cousins and almost every man I knew during my growing up years, worked there.  Johnstown was a melting pot of people who had immigrated from Italy, Poland, and Germany, and AA's who migrated from the south. All looking for employment, but for the most part, if your father worked in the steel mill, everyone was on the same socio-economic level. Employment can be a great leveler!

For the most part, we all lived together in different,but similar neighborhoods, except for Bethlehem Steel higher level management (all of whom were white), who lived in Westmont – a part of town that sat high up on a hill and looked down over the rest of the city.  Still standing and operable is the steepest incline plane (see the picture) in the world that transported scores of black women by bus to clean the homes of the well-to-do white people who lived in Westmont - we did not live there. 

Though I don’t remember a lot of racial tension growing up, I do remember the places where blacks COULD NOT GO:  Fun City, an amusement park that did not allow blacks in the pool, Tops Diner, which did not serve blacks, and the  Sunnehanna Country Club that allowed young black men to caddie but did not permit black golfers to use the course.  I also remember the drunk man at a Thanksgiving Parade who yelled into the crowd for “Niggers to get out of his way” and the other white men in the crowd, grabbing him and turning him over to the police. 

Neither my siblings, all older than me, nor I ever had a black teacher until we attended college. But what we did have were strong parents – who themselves were not able to attend school beyond middle or junior high - but who instilled in us that we could be whatever we wanted. They worked hard to ensure we would do better than they had. They worked hard so that we wouldn’t have to labor in a hot steel mill or scrub floors - unless those were the professions we chose. 

As an aside, I can’t tell you how dismayed I was, when I  read several years ago, that “American men in their 30s are earning less than their father’s generation did, challenging a long-held belief that each generation will be better off than the one that preceded it” (CNNMoney.com May 2007). “Doing better than your parents” was once the norm.

When I was about 10, my family traveled to High Point, NC to visit my brother who was pastoring a church there. My sister-in-law, NC born and bred, took us shopping at the local F. W. Woolworth Store.  As we shopped, I spied two water fountains side by side, one labeled “Colored” and the other “White”, my young mind told me to drink from both so I could compare them. After all, I had never seen or tasted colored water.  After drinking from both fountains, I was perplexed that the water looked and tasted the same, but I was even more perplexed that my sister-in-law almost collapsed in fear as she hustled us out of the store, scared that someone might arrest us for crossing the color line.

I also remember when I spent summers in Wilkesboro, NC, AA's had to use the “Colored” Entrance to the movie theater, which was up two flights of stairs, above the balcony and just in front of the projector room. The projector was so loud you couldn’t hear the dialogue. Even though it wasn't perfect at home, I couldn't wait to get back to Johnstown and the 25 cents Saturday morning movies where I could sit anywhere I pleased.

When I was a high school sophomore, my mother packed me up and sent me to NC to live with my brother and his family.  My father had been killed in a car accident when I was five and she felt she needed help “keeping me in line”. So off I went to an all girls, all black high school in Winston-Salem.  Talk about culture shock!  Suddenly I went from attending a Catholic high school in Johnstown, where there were only three other black students out of a class of a several hundred, to a small Catholic school with less than 30 students, all female, all AA. 

But those days in Winston – long over but never forgotten – opened my eyes to a new world – very much like reading a book about a new culture.  It was 1962 and in NC the public schools, hospitals and everything else you could imagine, even R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Factories, were still segregated.  For the first time in my life, I became friends with kids whose parents were doctors, lawyers, teachers, and many other professions. I was astonished - at least until I realized that in order to exist in the south they had to provide these services for themselves. 

But seeing this different way of life validated everything my mother had taught us, I could achieve anything I wanted. In 1964 the school I attended, St. Anne’s Academy, closed and the students were encouraged to attend the “desegregated” Catholic high school, where in 1965 I graduated as part of the first integrated class of Bishop McGuinness High School. I don’t remember one moment of racial tension during that year, maybe because it was easy for me to blend in since I was already accustomed to attending and competing with whites in school.

During my life, I’ve met a lot of Paula Deen’s – those men and women who “tolerate” your presence but whose vibes say “I’m really better than you!"; I've worked with people who asked  “Can I feel your hair?”or "Why do you wear hose? If my legs were brown, I wouldn't". I've been told numerous times, after meeting someone face-to-face, “I didn’t think you were black when we spoke on the phone". I’ve witnessed older black men having to call barely grown white boys “Mister” while, in return, being called by their first name or “boy”. 

But I also remember how empowered I felt at when I watched  Sidney Portier in “They Call Me Mr. Tibbs” and Denzel Washington in “Malcolm X”!

Now, don’t get this twisted – I don't think any group owns the corner on racism!  There are plenty of racists to go around in every ethnic group and maybe this whole “Paula Deen Debacle” might be considered “much ado about nothing” by some, but for me – when your net worth is more than $17 million, I’m not going to lose any sleep over someone losing a television contract, when people, black and white, are still lined up outside their restaurant waiting to pay to be served.

 

Addendum

Clarification - This blog is not a commentary on whether or not Paula Deen used the "N" word because to me that was NOT THE STORY!  Rather it was my reaction to "institutional racism" that deep seated racism that - unless checked - passes from generation to generation. 

 

The story was that a former employee, a white woman who worked at the restaurant owned by Paula and her brother, had filed suit against them alleging racism - she alleged that the brother routinely used the "N" word, that black employees were not allowed to use the restrooms meant for customers (though this was not required of white employees), that the brother routinely displayed pornography on company computers and that Paula knew about and sanctioned this behavior.  Institutional racism!!!!  Paula, when being deposed about the case, was asked if she ever used the "N" word and when she "flubbed" the answer she was fired by the Food Network!  The End!