If you consider the phrase “broad sympathy for some, broad skepticism of others” a contemporary definition of racism, the respective sides of the Paula Deen controversy line up perfectly.
Supporters of the folksy queen of country cuisine have forgiven her without much hesitation. Her detractors, some former fans, have piled on without much investigation.
The Kansas African American Museum reached out to Deen – without success. We considered it a long-shot opportunity to confront a problem society has fled for centuries. Banishing Deen does little to help us explore the volatile emotions this episode ignited or to help us soothe them.
Some people consider race a nonissue, but society’s proclivity for wishing it away has only preserved it. We store it in our blind spot. No wonder we crash into it so regularly.
Consider the occasions where a college fraternity stages a slave auction or dresses up in blackface.
Or the Trayvon Martin case. Citizens have lined up in opposing camps – one sympathetic to the unarmed teenager, the other sympathetic to George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watchman charged in Martin’s death.
Or U.S. Supreme Court decisions last week regarding the Voting Rights Act, affirmative action and a custody dispute involving an American Indian child.
And now Deen, accused of using a racial slur and musing about plantation-style weddings.
But she’s a proxy argument where societal factions, broadly sympathetic or broadly skeptical, reflexively assume their respective roles – without considering other perspectives.
People who historically have not suffered from structural racial discrimination often proclaim it a nonissue. Still, they know how it feels to get pummeled for insensitive comments uttered not out of malice but out of ignorance.
Conversely, people who consider Deen’s alleged point of view pervasive could lean a little more on how they contribute to their own lot. Still, they want people to understand what it would be like for a black employee to work for someone who thinks the way Deen has been accused of thinking.
Living in the subjective isn’t easy.
Consider our outrage when game officials penalize our favorite team. But what if your livelihood hung in the balance of some broadly skeptical or broadly sympathetic call?
That’s why the Kansas African American Museum reached out to Deen. She’s not Bull Connor with a spatula. We’ve all said something we’ve regretted. We hoped to show her detractors that people can evolve and her supporters that good could come from vulnerable conversations across factions.
The museum is a bridge-building institution, but there’s no reconciliation without a reckoning.
Punishing Deen without those conversations moves us no closer to either.