Paula Deen denies racism in emotional Today show interview which skirts some important issues
Celebrity chef Paula Deen faced the world on NBC’s Today show this morning to deny she was a bigot, offering an emotional interview about race and racism sparked by admissions in a lawsuit deposition that she had once used the n-word.
Unfortunately, the segment, handled with delicate but firm precision by anchor Matt Lauer, skirted some of the most important issues in the controversy swirling around Deen, including allegations in the litigation of sexual harassment and racial discrimination at her restaurants.
Lauer eventually asked her simply: “Are you a racist?”
“No,” deen replied, quickly. “My father tolerated bad grades, he would tolerated me maybe breaking a curfew. But he said ‘Girl, if I ever find out that you have behaved in a way that you think you are better than others or have been unkind, your butt is gonna be mine.”
Deen delivered an emotional, sometimes rambling defense in which she blamed young people in her restaurants for slinging racial epithets, denounced “lies” in media reports and insisted there was “someone evil” out there trying to take her family’s fortune.
But even other anchors on the Today show picked apart her performance; The Voice host Carson Daly, looking supremely out of place, said more than 80 percent of respondents to their website feel their mind was not changed by her interview.
Regarding her admitted use of the n-word, the chef insisted the only time she used it was in describing a black man who put a gun to her face while she was working as a bank teller in the 1980s. “The day I used that word, it was a world ago,” she insisted.
Lauer failed to note that in Deen’s deposition, she said “I’m sure I have” used the n-word since that robbery, though she could not recall the specific circumstance, perhaps in repeating something said to her by someone else.
By the segment’s end, she had dissolved into tears, telling viewers “if you never committed a sin, please pick up the rock, pick up that boulder and hit me as hard as you can.”
Lauer’s interview also never delved into the allegations which sparked the news stories that have threatened Deen’s multimillion-dollar empire; claims of sexual harassment and racial discrimination at a restaurant co-owned by the chef and her brother.
He didn’t note an attorney for the Rainbow/PUSH coalition, a civil rights groups founded by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, said over the weekend he has statements from one current and two past employees at Deen’s restaurants claiming a pattern of racial discrimination against black staffers.
The Today show anchor also failed to probe another story which troubled critics, admissions that Deen wanted to plan a “plantation”-style wedding patterned after a restaurant in which the entire wait staff was black, hearkening to the days of slavery.
Instead, they focused on the question of whether Deen’s admitted use of the n-word branded her a racist. Lauer probed the issue steadily, asking “By birth, by choice, by osmosis, you don’t feel you have racist tendencies?”
Lauer highlighted a quote from her deposition in which Deen said “most jokes target. ... They usually target, though a group. Gays or straights, black, redneck, you know. ... I can’t determine what offends another person.”
“Do you have any doubt in your mind that African Americans are offended by the n-word?” Lauer asked.
Deen seemed to blame young people in her restaurant who she accused of slinging the word themselves. “It’s distressing for me to go into my kitchens and I hear what these young people are calling each other,” she said. “These young people are going to have to take control and start showing respect for each other and not throwing that word at each other.”
Another useful follow-up question which went unasked: If Deen felt the language in her kitchens was so distressing, why didn’t she tell her employees to stop using such words? And if she tolerated such language, could that have created a hostile work environment on its own?
Deen seemed to show a cavalier reaction to use of the n-word in her deposition which troubled critics. Much as Lauer probed her racial attitudes with questions, the interview never resolved that issue -- likely leaving many Deen critics unsatisfied.
The chef’s troubles surfaced last week when the National Enquirer reported on a deposition she gave in May for a lawsuit filed by Lisa Jackson, a former manager at Uncle Bubba’s Seafood and Oyster House Inc., a restaurant run by Deen’s brother, Earl W. “Bubba” Hiers.
The Enquirer story proclaimed Deen “confesses to using the N-word on several occasions and even wanting black waiters to play the role of slave in a wedding party she was planning.”
But a look at the deposition shows that is the harshest interpretation of Deen’s answers to questions in which she only admitted definitively to using the word once and insisted she wouldn’t call the waiters at her “plantation” style wedding slaves.
The Food Network announced it would not renew a contract with Deen late last week, not long after she posted the first of two YouTube videos apologizing for the controversy. Smithfield Foods also dropped the chef and TV shopping giant QVC said it is considering their relationship.
As criticism of Deen’s admission grew, fans also rallied in support, flocking to her restaurant in Savannah, Ga., and starting Facebook pages devoted to supporting her.
“We can never underestimate the power of these voices,” said Deen, who also thanked the companies which have maintained their endorsement deals with her so far, including QVC. “These people who have met me and know me and love me , they’re just as angry as the people who are reading stories that are lies.”
It seems possible Deen was hamstrung by covering for her brother, avoiding public discloures which might affect the lawsuit and clumsily handling the initial spread of the story, cancelling an interview with the Today show last week before she was dropped by the Food Network.
And if she only used the n-word once in her life, why didn't she just say that in one of her video apologies on YouTube?
But Lauer cut Deen short as she began to complain about someone, presumably Jackson, who “saw what I had worked for and they wanted it,” leaving questions about why he never mentioned the lawsuit in depth.
“I is what I is,” Deen eventually said, insisting she wouldn’t detail how much she has helped people of color in the past. “And I’m not changing.”
Information from Times Wires was used in this report. See the full interview below: