Dear Old Southern White Woman

Dear Old Southern White Woman,

I know you. You're in my family. You make that amazing coconut cake for the family reunion every year, and your sweet tea is more sugar than water, and that's the way we all love it. You're always generous and kind and upbeat. And you've got a core of steel that has helped you weather your troubles stoically, even beating breast cancer when you're too polite to say the word "breast" in public. You've taken care of me all my life, and you're a good person who knows she's going to heaven.

You have type-2 diabetes now, but you're still cooking pie and biscuits for the rest of us. You're not sure how you got the diabeetus, and you say there's no cure, but luckily that nice Paula Deen told you exactly how to take care of it. I tried to bring you articles about how pre-packaged sugary shakes aren't helping, how doctors have proven that type-2 diabetes can be cured with the right diet*, but you said your doctor told you better, told you the prescription was the best way. So whenever you ask me to pick up your needles, I do, because you're 85 and think you know better than me.

And now you feel sorry for Paula Deen. You think she's a victim, and it makes you angry for the way she's being treated after giving so much to the world.

You're angry at the lying lawyers, the Food Network, the liberal media.

You're angry at everyone except Paula Deen. 

And I think it's because y'all are a lot alike, and that scares you.

See, here's the thing. You try to be a good person every single day. But somewhere along the way, you skipped that page in the newspapers that told you that black people had rights and didn't want to be called Negroes or Coloreds or worse, the N-word. You think Orientals are people *and* rugs. And you don't want to go to your old Kroger anymore because there are people with a definite brown cast to their skin and you can't understand what they say when they talk. And that scares you, too. Because you grew up in an all-white neighborhood with an all-white church in an all-white town where you knew everybody. That was your normal, your safety. And it's all changing.

You grew up Paula Deen, surrounded by Paula Deens.

And you can't understand that that world is crumbling.

And most of us are really happy to see it go.

***


I support free speech, and I don't like censorship, and I believe that the current issue with Paula Deen doesn't involve either issue. I am glad that she is feeling an emotional and legal backlash for disrespecting other human beings in her business and in the public eye.

Growing up in the South, I assume that most white people I meet, especially the Conservative-Christian-Republican types who people my family reunions, are racists. They talk about it unapologetically, wondering aloud who would elect a black president (i.e. ME). And because I love my family, because I want them to love me, I don't always correct them or tell them how horrified I am by their beliefs and ignorance.

And I'm realizing that that makes me part of this problem: my silence tells them it's okay.

That's what's so hard about racism in the deep South: it's everywhere, including the people you love. My grandmother honestly doesn't think that her racism is harming anyone. She's not trying to be ugly. When I was little, she sang Jesus Loves the Little Children to me, smiling through "red and yellow, black and white; they are precious in his sight," yet she doesn't understand how hurtful it is to call mixed race children "abominations". That's actually the first one that ever spurred me out of my quiet acceptance of their prejudice; I couldn't stand by and hear someone I love call an innocent child something so horrible.

"They're not abominations. They're children," I said.

We argued about it for ten minutes, gentle and polite as Southern women are, and then I left, knowing I hadn't even made a dent. Science, logic, history, religion--nothing could beat her bone-deep belief that non-whites are lesser.

"Sugar, you go home and read your Bible, and you'll see," she said as she hugged me goodbye.

***


So I say to Paula Deen and my grandparents and anyone with such views:

It is your right to be a racist. And it is other people's right to judge you for it.

Even when you get past the fact that learned racism can be unlearned with empathy, understanding, and education (because I know plenty of people who have transcended it!), you still have to deal with the consequences of exercising your right to spew hate speech. That is, you are free to be a racist, no matter what race you are personally and whether or not you were raised in the Deep South. But once you're in a position of power and use your beliefs to harm others, the issue is no longer one of free speech.

No one in this situation believes that Paula Deen is restricted from selling butter and insulin simultaneously or that she can't sit at home and collect Little Black Sambo books behind closed doors. The argument here is that when you publicly demean other people due to their race or sexuality, the public is allowed to picket you, to petition against you, to fire you, and, yes, to judge you. When someone sets out to become a media star or celebrity, there is a tacit understanding that they are going to be under examination at all times, photographed and quoted. And if you are a bigot, you've either got to learn to hide it or face the consequences.

And that, for me, is the heart of the matter. That is why I have no sympathy for Paula Deen.

While everyone might be racist to certain degrees, and while my sweet old dying grandmother is being racist behind closed doors and eight decades of well-meaning Christian ignorance, Paula Deen is actively harming the world through her cult of celebrity. She should know better. And even if she doesn't personally believe it, which is her right, she should know better than to open her mouth. The public backlash seems an appropriate punishment.

I grew up with the duality of loving people and hating their prejudice against other races, against other sexualities, and against anything weird or unusual. For a while, I thought that their closet racism was fine, that it wasn't harming anyone. When I got a little older, I thought there was some magic argument I could find, some proof I could present that would change their feelings. I've never found it. For now, the best I can do is be a good granddaughter, confidently speak my mind when offended, and teach my children better.

It's not even difficult. My daughter doesn't think twice about race. When I ask her what her friends are like at school, she tells me the color of their hair but not the color of their skin. My son isn't sure if he'll grow up to marry a woman, a man, a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, or nobody. The acceptance that was so unusual in my youth is now a natural part of life. I don't want my grandparents to die, and every time the phone rings after dark or before sunrise, I worry that it's that call. But I look forward to a world in which this accepted, assumed racism has died out with the last generation that can plead any kind of ignorance.

***


There's a certain guilt to growing up white and middle class in the Deep South. If I listed all my issues and feelings, this post would go on for days. But I will say this. In Summer 2014, I have a book coming out with Simon Pulse called SERVANTS OF THE STORM. The idea was inspired by pictures of Six Flags NOLA after Hurricane Katrina, and the story centers on a teen girl who lost her best friend in a hurricane that devastated Savannah. The protagonist, Dovey, is mixed race, and her best friend, Carly was black. I did my level best to make race an aspect of the story but not the crux or focus of it, and I have never written a book with such good intentions and such internal terror of how it will be received. We say we want more people of color in our books, but as a white middle class woman, is my attempt to capture Dovey's worldview offensive or helpful? Am I giving the next generation a character with whom they can identify, or am I assuming too much in trying to explore the mind, heart, and motivations of someone whose true experience I can't fathom?

But I'll say this. Dovey sprang from my mind fully-formed, just as much as Criminy or Ahna or Casper. She was herself from the beginning, unapologetic and ready to fight. And changing her heritage, changing her color, would be a disservice to her very being. The world has plenty of stories about misunderstood white girls like I was, so I hope that any fumbling on my part will be taken in the spirit of someone who wants her children to grow up knowing that people are people, each special in their own way and each worthy of attention, empathy, and understanding. If I can see through the eyes of a male Victorian vampire circus ringmaster, is it such a stretch that I could put myself in the place of a mixed race teen girl fighting demons?

And here's the secret: I named Dovey after my racist grandmother.

I might have also parodied Paula Deen as a murderous, owl-footed demon trying to take over a storm-ridden Savannah with magic pills. But you'll have to read the sequel to find out.

***


In conclusion: I took down the news story on Facebook that listed all the N-words Paula Deen innocently dropped during her deposition and instead linked to this lovely tumblr showcasing proud and happy mixed race families. If this kerfuffle can teach us anything, I hope it's that we're all better off focusing on the miracles in our life instead of looking backwards at a world that's on the way out.


*A commenter has informed me that this information is false and hurtful. I'm not changing the original post, as that seems underhanded and dishonest on my part, as this was indeed the way I responded to my grandmother several years ago. But I will share that I have an incurable autoimmune disorder myself and apologize if this interpretation shames or stigmatizes any sufferers of type 2 diabetes. My feelings about perpetuating the causes of this disease while shilling the medicine to help it remain the same, but the purpose of this blog post was not to hurt anyone in regards to their physical challenges.