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Speaking About Race: Paula Deen and the Need for Racial Literacy

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Paula Deen certainly learned the hard way that you have to be careful when you speak about race. After last week's revelations that she has "yes, of course" used the N-word and made other racially-insensitive comments, many people are wondering whether Deen is racist and debating whether Food Network should have dropped her television shows. But amidst this controversy, there is a teaching moment not to be missed. Even if you don't use racial slurs and don't have a prejudiced bone in your body, speaking about race is not easy. It's time we did more to improve everyone's racial literacy.

The concept of racial literacy is often attributed to sociologist France Twine. She studied mixed-face families in the United Kingdom, and observed how parents of half-black children empowered their children to counter racism. She coined "racial literacy" to describe socialization and training that "parents of African-descent children practiced in their efforts to defend their children against racism."

I interpret racial literacy more broadly. To me, it's not just about preparing minority children to deal with racism they may face in life. It's about empowering everyone to more constructively engage with racial issues.

From her research, Twine set out criteria for racial literacy. For example, you need to understand that racism is a current problem rather than just a historic legacy. You should also recognize that racial identities are learned as part of social processes. One of the criteria is particularly relevant to Paula Deen's situation -- do you possess racial grammar and vocabulary that facilitates a discussion of race and racism?

Clearly, Paula Deen did not. From her own words at a deposition, I'm not sure what was the worst offense. Was it that she has "Yes, of course" used the N-word? Or that she can't "determine what offends another person" when it comes to jokes about racial and other groups? Or was it being inspired from seeing a restaurant to throw a wedding for her brother with a Southern plantation theme -- complete with "middle-aged black men" wearing "beautiful white jackets with a black bow tie"? Making matters worse, Deen explained that restaurant "was really impressive" because it represented a certain era in America -- after, during and before the Civil War with "not only black men, it was black women... I would say they were slaves."

Deflecting her use of the N-word, Deen tried to explain "that's just not a word that we use as time has gone on. Things have changed since the '60s in the south." Indeed Paula, things have changed in the past 50 years -- except perhaps for your racial attitudes and ability to talk about race.

I can't tell you whether Paula Deen is actually a racist. Only she knows in her own heart. I certainly think her words and outdated attitude about race are totally unacceptable. But let's assume for a moment that she loves all colors and creeds. Even if that were true, Deen certainly has a hard time speaking about race. That's evident from her discussion about racial slurs, offensive jokes, and the plantation-themed wedding idea.

This discomfort with racial dialogue was on further display in the series of apology videos she posted online last Friday after cancelling an interview with Matt Lauer on the Today show. The first video was edited after almost every sentence -- suggesting that Deen could not get through an entire apology without help. After yanking down that first try, she posted a second recording which was just plain awkward in its begging of forgiveness from everyone. And there was yet a third video apologizing just to Matt Lauer.

But something was notably absent from the videos -- an explanation for why Deen used the N-word before or what was the deal with thinking about a Southern plantation-themed wedding. The most she gave was a vague reference to "inappropriate, hurtful language." That was not effective apology -- which would have required Deen to explain and take responsibility for her actions. What's more, it was visibly evident from the videos that she has a difficult time talking about race. (Hint: if you are trying to convince America you are not a racist, you need to show a comfort level in being able to talk about racial dynamics.)

Paula Deen is not alone. In my own life, it's been a long time since I've been hit with a racial slur. But I do often meet people who have trouble discussing race with me. When folks want to know my ethnic background, they'll often fumble with questions like "What kind of Asian are you?" or my personal favorite "What are you?" After I tell people I'm Vietnamese, I sometimes get met with declarations like: "Oh you're Vietnamese! One of my best friends as a kid was Vietnamese. Maybe you know her?" (Contrary to mythic belief, I don't know all Vietnamese people.) I doubt anyone asking me these questions is really racist. To the contrary, they are just exhibiting interest in my background. But the way these statements are phrased reflect the awkwardness people can exhibit when it comes to racial conversation.

For me, that's the teaching moment from the Paula Deen controversy. Talking about race is hard, but we can't solve racial divides by ignoring the topic. Instead, we can -- and should -- all get better at the dialogues. As France Twine recognized, this requires us to improve our vocabulary and language to facilitate racial dialogue, rather than continue talking in ways that reinforce historic prejudice.

If you don't know where to begin, just ask. For example, if you aren't sure how to find out my ethnic background, I'd rather you say something like "What's the polite way to ask this question?" A little effort goes a long way in signaling that you are trying to be respectful.

Of course, racial literacy won't change people who are truly discriminatory. Nor will it magically lead us to a post-racial utopia where prejudice no longer exists. But we take a big step forward by becoming better speakers about race. To that, even Paula Deen would have to say "yes, of course."