Celebrity chef Paula Deen faced TV cameras on NBC's Today show Wednesday morning to insist she was not a bigot and had used the n-word only once, trying to stem a national controversy over admissions in a lawsuit deposition that she had uttered the slur.
After a brief preamble, anchor Matt Lauer asked her simply: "Are you a racist?"
"No," she replied quickly. "My father tolerated bad grades, he would have 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.
Later Wednesday, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. announced that it has ended its relationship with Deen. The world's largest retailer, which said it will not place "any new orders beyond what's already committed," has carried Deen-branded products at all of its U.S. namesake stores.
Regarding her admitted use of the n-word, the celebrity cook insisted on Today that 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 said.
Lauer failed to press Deen much on her admission in her deposition that "I'm sure I have" used the n-word since that incident, though she could not recall the specific circumstance, perhaps in repeating something said by someone else.
By the segment's end, she had dissolved into tears, telling viewers: "If there's anyone out there that has never said something that they wish they could take back ... please pick up that stone and throw it so hard at my head that it kills me. Please, I want to meet you."
Lauer's interview did not delve into the allegations sparking news stories that have threatened Deen's multimillion-dollar empire: accusations from a former employee that she saw sexual harassment and racial discrimination while managing a restaurant co-owned by Deen and her brother.
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?" He highlighted a quote from her deposition in which Deen said, "Most jokes are about Jewish people, rednecks, black folks ... I didn't make up the jokes. They usually target, though, a group. ... I can't, myself, 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 whom 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."
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 Oyster House, a restaurant run by Deen's brother, Earl W. "Bubba" Hiers.
Lauer cut Deen short as she began to complain about someone who "saw what I had worked for and they wanted it," raising 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.