Mea Culpa, Y’all

06.26.13

Paula Deen Apologizes (Again) on ‘Today.’ Do You Forgive Her Yet?

The disgraced butter peddler stopped by ‘Today,’ where she finally dropped her ‘old Southern lady’ defense. On this historic day of equality, is it time to accept her apology?

It’s an interesting day to be writing about another Paula Deen apology.

Just over an hour before the Supreme Court ruled in favor of equal protection for same-sex couples by striking down the Defense of Marriage Act and declining to rule on Proposition 8—sparking tearful celebrations of love and acceptance—a woman who, depending on whom you ask, had been synonymous with hatred and intolerance for much of the past week appeared on the Today show to, for no less than the fifth time, apologize for using the N word.

Do we forgive her?

“The main reason I’m here today, Matt, is that it’s important for me to tell you and everyone out there what I believe and how I live my life,” Deen began her 14-minute segment with Matt Lauer. “I believe that every creature on this earth—every one of God’s creatures—was created equal. No matter who you choose to go to bed at night with. No matter what church you go to pray.”

It’s a poignant thing to hear, especially today and especially as Deen became visibly and, it appeared, genuinely distraught and emotional throughout her appearance. Still, it’s difficult not to be skeptical of Deen’s motive for appearing on the show Wednesday. It was exactly a week ago when reports first leaked that the Baroness of Butter had used the N word in the past. The revelation was part of her deposition in a harassment case one of her former employees filed.

Cries that the down-home-cooking chef, who sits atop a multimillion-dollar empire, is a racist immediately followed, as did the swift cutting of ties by two of her most lucrative business partners, the Food Network and Smithfield Foods. Four baffling apologies followed: one used the “I’m old and from the South” defense; the others were different versions of the same rambling statement, shoddily filmed in what appears to be the reception area of a dentist’s office. Deen’s career, it seemed, was cooked.

So credit Lauer for refusing to lob softballs, asking Deen, “Are you here to stop the financial bleeding?”

“I’m here today because I want people to know who I am,” she said.

Lauer also asked Deen point-blank if she was a racist. Deen categorically said no, launching into a monologue about her moral upbringing: “As a child I was raised in a home that my father tolerated bad grades. He would tolerate maybe me breaking a curfew. He told me, he said, ‘Girl, if I ever found out that you have behaved in a way where you think you're better than others, or have been unkind, your butt is gonna be mine.’”

One apology used the “I’m old and from the South” defense.

Deen has, by all accounts until now, been a kind and accepting person. She’s been—it’s especially important to remember today—an outspoken advocate for the gay community, and former employees have told The Daily Beast that “the woman I know, the family I know, she would never speak that way [with racist epithets].”

Deen maintained to Lauer that the one and only time she used the N word was when she held up at a gunpoint while working at a bank in 1986. “The day I used that word it was a world ago,” she said. “It was 30 years ago.”

It’s another variant on the statement that brought so much backlash last week—the old-Southern-lady free pass. Some may roll their eyes at the idea, but many people feel it has merit. Hordes of supporters lined up outside her Savannah, Georgia, restaurant to rally behind her this past week, and Facebook commenters called for a boycott of the Food Network after she was fired. “Which one of us hasn’t ever said something years ago that we no longer say today,” said one commenter. “Are you perfect??? You’ve never said anything you regert?” said another.

The day before Deen’s Today appearance, John McWhorter, an associate professor at Columbia University and the author of What Language Is (and What It Isn’t and What It Could Be), penned a piece for Time in defense of Deen. “People of Deen’s generation can neither change the past nor completely escape their roots in it, any more than the rest of us,” he wrote. “They can apologize and mean it, as Deen seems to. They also deserve credit for owning up to past sins, as Deen did candidly when she could easily have, shall we say, whitewashed the matter.”

Here is one of the more interesting exchanges from the Today interview. Lauer: “Would you have fired you?” Deen: “Knowing me, no.”

It’s an interesting point, as Deen’s entire career has been built on her accessible, open-door personality. As she told Lauer, “What you see is what you get. I’m not an actress.” Watch any of Deen’s cooking shows, talk-show interviews, or television appearances, and you get a sense of her sassiness, a refreshing lack of filter that is, yes, warm, but you also get a sense she is also a little naughty. It’s what we love about her. It’s what set her apart from her more prickly and buttoned-up colleagues. Sure, it’s what makes it believable that she may have said the N word in the past. But it’s also what makes it believable that she is as distraught and broken up about it as she claims to be.

But not everyone’s buying it.

Image expert David Johnson called it “the worst celeb apology I’ve ever witnessed.” Among her mistakes, he said, was reiterating the “I’m just a white woman in my 60s from the South” statement and maintaining that she only used the N word once in her life. Should a voicemail, email, or even anecdote come out proving otherwise, she’s just dug her career grave.

Then, of course, there’s the simple point that she failed to say two very important words: “I’m sorry.” Richard Nixon “never apologized by saying he was guilty or wrong about Watergate,” Johnson said. “She was the same way.”

Still, given the disaster her earlier attempts at contrition were, this appearance seems to have done wonders for her. “She appeared very genuine,” said publicist Lily Golightly. “Her YouTube videos were kind of strange, and this interview should have cleared things up.”

Deen concluded her appearance with a bizarre, maybe ill-advised but definitely bold direct address to camera. "If there's anyone out there that have never said something that they wish they could take back,” she said. “If you're out there please pick up that stone and throw it so hard at my head that it kills me. Please, I want to meet you. I is what it is, and I'm not changing."

She is what she is. She is a person who said something racist. She is someone who said that thing decades ago. She is someone who says she’s sorry for her words. She is someone who definitely has financial stake in winning forgiveness for those words, but is also someone who claims to be genuinely regretful of them.

What you make of that is up to you, y’all.