On Friday afternoon, the Food Network announced that it was dropping Paula Deen from its network after 14 years on air, after the National Enquirer reported (and The Huffington Post confirmed) that the chef had aired a series of arguably racist comments while being deposed for a lawsuit. But the deposition wasn't the first time that Paula Deen has voiced questionable views on race.
Last fall, I visited the New York Times headquarters to see Paula Deen talk with Times reporter Kim Severson on a variety of topics. When I wrote it up, I focused mostly on her comments about her diabetes, because Deen's endorsement of the diabetes drug Victoza was still hot news. But I also briefly mentioned a strange segment of the talk in which she talked about Southern attitudes toward race. Today, all this talk of her recent racist comments spurred me to revisit the video of the TimesTalk. It's really shocking stuff. Watch the video at the top of this entry for our race-related highlights.
Severson first broaches the topic of race relations after showing a clip from Deen's appearance on "Who Do You Think You Are," in which she visits a large plantation a distant ancestor of hers named Billy had owned. (Along with 30 slaves.) That prompts Deen to talk about the Civil War and the Antebellum South.
Though she ultimately says that the abolition of slavery was a "terrific change," she also takes some time to defend the practice. She says, back then, "black folk were such integral part of our lives, they were like our family," and, for that reason, "we didn't see ourselves as being prejudiced." (The first person plural here raises the question: did Paula Deen herself live in the Antebellum South? Is she a vampire?) It's also worth noting that she takes care not to refer to slaves as "slaves." She generally calls them "these people" or "workers."
And her defense of contemporary race relations is just as bizarre. She thinks the race relations in the South are "good... pretty good." OK. "It will take a long time for it to completely be gone. If it'll ever be gone." Fine. But here's where it starts to get weird. "We're all prejudiced against one thing or another," she continues. "I think black people feel the same prejudice that white people feel." Hmm...
By far the strangest, most awkward moment of the whole talk, however, is when she talks about a black employee of hers named Hollis Johnson. She says that he's become very dear to her in the 18 years she's known him, which is plenty sweet. But then she says points to the jet-colored backdrop behind her and says he's "black as this board." She proceeds to call out to him in the audience and ask him to come on stage, telling him, "We can't see you standing in front of that dark board!" The audience roars with laughter. Severson, shocked, says, "Welcome to New York." And Paula, characteristically, responds, "Welcome to the South."
Or the South as Paula Deen sees it, at least. Which, from now on, will be on view in her cookbooks and the soon-to-open Paula Deen Museum, but not on the Food Network.