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Gillian Clark Headshot

The N-Word and Other Stones

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To most of us black people, Paula Deen's "Well, I do declare" brand of racism isn't news. Even for those of us from up north we are neither stunned nor surprised. Growing up black in New York in the 1970s shielded me from the violence faced by Medgar Evers and Emmett Till, but the simmering bigotry that gets under my skin is probably the same brand of insensitive name calling and characterizations faced by the cooks working for Paula Deen. Like these black folk, I learned to shrug it off and count it as one more thing we have to deal with living in white America.

Certainly there were things that were unacceptable -- my grandmother being beaten by a band of white cops who turned on her when she raised her hands to shield her husband from the swinging batons. And then there are the incidents that we grow to live with. From the kids at school marveling at how my hair stands up in an afro or being the only black kid in the suddenly quiet room when pictures from summer camp go from swimming in the lake to shots taken at the talent show performed in black face. As early as elementary school we learn to let it go, not to make a big deal of these things, to get along, and to not make an uncomfortable moment any more wool sweater itchy than it already is.

We were told not to run at dusk so as not to be mistaken for the armed purse snatcher. We learned to keep quiet when a white person drove up and admired our gardening. Surely the house could not be ours. Couldn't we be his hired help for the day and work his yard? "Why, sure." My mother would say with a wide and pleasant smile. She was never angry or offended. She'd shrug and go back to her rhododendrons.

We learned to accept the ways of Hollywood. I was watching The Cay for a classroom assignment. The white school boy -- stranded on an uncharted island with a black man -- survives the hurricane thanks to the old black man using his body to shield the boy from the force of the storm. "The only good black is a dead one," my father predicted. And sure enough, saving the boy means the black guy has to die. If not making the ultimate sacrifice it is the black character that is the turncoat. Sgt. Powell helps Bruce Willis in Die Hard, but in Die Hard 2 he betrays him. Billie Dee Williams is the only black guy in outer space according to George Lucas, but he's also the one to turn Han Solo over to Jabba the Hut. In Total Recall Benny, the mutant cab driver, is on the wrong side all along, and keeps it from Arnold Schwarzenegger until the very end.

As black people, we've come to not expect too much from white America. Paula Deen's use of the N word and her plans for a plantation wedding fit right in.

I'm black chef -- a black woman who cooks for a living. I know I've opened myself up to a host of presumptions and double standards. It's a career closely associated with domestic work which makes it an industry many black women with an education and ambition have steered away from.

But accepting that it is something I chose to do and not a career I fell into because of some innate skill set is something many white folks can't wrap their head around. It is also a craft that I have perfected studying the French Method in a French School and by working with some talented white chefs. My skills are learned not acquired by instinct or inherited. "Are these your old family recipes?" I hear that more often than you'd think when a white person glances the menu. And when I tell an inquirer that I specialize in Classic American cuisine they insist, "I don't understand why you would do that. Why wouldn't someone like you be cooking soul food?" It's hard to believe a daughter of Panamanian Immigrants raised on Long Island knows more about matzo balls and knish than she does about chitterlings and pigs feet. I had my first bowl of grits one lazy Saturday as a sophomore at Johns Hopkins University. But once it gets out who is in the kitchen, even my cold potato leek soup gets the soul food label.

And are all chefs criticized for not smiling enough as I have been these 19 years in the business? Bloggers, detractors, even fans all hate that I don't smile while I'm working. Has anyone asked the last five winners of the Mid-Atlantic James Beard Chef of the Year Award to sauce plates and toss parsley while doing their best imitation of Aunt Jemima? Hardly. But it's way easier for some white folks to swallow that soup I've made if there is no doubt in their mind that I'm happiest serving and I'm not thinking about slavery and I really have no feelings of my own and I live only to make sure everything white folks put in their mouths is "taste bud tinglin'."

My face in countless magazines and on cooking segments of local morning shows was erased once something I wrote appeared in the newspaper. There were many evenings I was asked to step aside so a reader might discuss the piece with the most obvious author, the only white lady in the kitchen. That kind of thing I take in stride, as most black folks do. They don't know. They can't help it. It is how they were raised. And other than a twinge of irritation, and feeling insulted it really doesn't hurt all that much.

But what does hurt is when we aren't seen as individuals. What hurts are words and labels that place some of us beneath others. What hurts is being told you cannot fulfill your job requirements because of your skin color. What hurts is driving while black, walking a gated community in a hoodie while black, and when a person relies on depictions of black people in movies and television to form an opinion. At this point the black ones stop being human beings. They become the N word and grow so dark they are invisible. If I'm just the N word you can't see my talents. I learned to cook the same way every N word does: on the porch of a shack in the low country at my grandmother's knee while she cooked and cleaned for her missus. N words don't win a James Beard Award.

After revelations about Paula Deen and all of the other racists exposed over the years (Rick Perry's Ranch N word Head and Michael Richards' racist rant during a comedy show), we are left with is the empty feeling that now all of us know what goes on in hearts and minds rarely exposed, but it is what black people have seen and tolerated for as long as I can remember. Paula Deen can rest assured that no one can throw that stone at her head. Not even me.