We are all Paula Deen, but most of us eat more healthily. In a sworn deposition confesses to having, at some point in her life, said, “nigger,” which is taken as proof of her racism since she is not a highly paid rap artist.
Racism, sexism, anti-semitism and terrorism are the four horsemen of career apocalypse. An accusation of any one dooms you to obscurity, or to Tea Party candidacy, depending on your number of intact teeth. Definitions of “race” are about as empirical as those of “groovy”. Barack Obama’s “race” is so often discussed I think there’s a whole YouTube channel devoted to it. In 1900, anthropologist J. Deniker listed no less than five “primary races” of white people in Europe alone, including “Northern,” “Adriatic,” and “Ibero-Inuslar,” plus four sub-races!
Let’s assume, for purposes of getting me through this essay, that Paula Deen is a “racist”. She’s a southern white woman, who prefers pale people who share her “culture”. And let’s assume that like generations of her ancestors and fellows she “don’t cotton to the coloreds”. DU-UH! Who doesn’t prefer folks with whom they have the most in common?
In-group preference seems how God (by which I mean Darwin) intended us to be. In words of the immortal Richard Daley the First, Mayor of Chicago, “If a man can’t put his arms around his sons and help them, then what’s the world coming to?” The primatologist Robert Sapolsky says, “Natural selection favors individuals who cooperate with their relatives.” Close-knit family co-operation may have affected both the survival of eastern European Jews and their incidence of Tay-sachs disease. Extremely close kin relations may also explain why NASCAR fans tend to look alike but that’s just a my theory.
In one of his TED Talks, psychologist Jonathan Haidt says that our instinct toward communal sharing “unites us into groups, divides us against other groups and blinds us to the truth” [of our common humanity.]
A preference for people who remind us of ourselves appears to begin shortly after birth. Developmental psychologist Kiley Hamlin works with infants between three and twelve months old. She feeds them cereal from bowls of a color they chose. She then shows them two puppets. One puppet wears a “shirt” of the same color as the infant’s chosen bowl. The other puppet wears a different hue. In Hamlin’s experiments, infants not only prefer puppets of similar color “tastes” but also prefer to see differently dressed puppets harmed.
We criminalize what the Supreme Court calls “invidious categories” of bias. We also enforce political correctness with taboos. “Lips that touch GMOs will NEVER touch mine!” We theoretically do so to encourage the better angels of our nature. We consider social sanctions prods for making kinder the nation and gentler the union. But in Paula Deen’s case, the opposite seems be happening. Many of us are using her story as a chance to release our inner Voldemorts. We indulge our most self-righteous, high-horsed and hard-hearted instincts. The Deen tale is like all stories that enter the cartoon world of national media. We project upon Imperiled Paula a caricature lacking any of subtlety or nuance of real life. Moreover the blows we deliver upon her name lack any of the compassion or sensitivity we enforce correctness to promote.
The worst you can say about Paula Deen is that she’s human. Like all of us, she was born into a world not of her making. I’m sure Paula’s Earth would have included no-cal doughnuts. She created neither the human tendency toward ingroup loyalty nor outgroup animosity. American racism started centuries before her birth, probably somewhere around the time the first Aztec thought, “Hmm, that tribe we just conquered would make great deity chow!” We unleash our righteous rage against Paula Deen today. But we who are WITH biases – as in we humans – might consider dropping those stones, or at least picking up smaller ones. There but for grace of a court deposition or an unfortunately recorded comment, go we.
With apologies to John Dunne: Never send to know for whom the taboo tolls. It tolls for thee and me.