I confess when everyone started talking about Paula Deen this past week, I had a moment or two of complete cultural disconnect.
Oh, she writes cookbooks and does a show on Food Network. Hm. So what?
I’m still not altogether sure what she did, what trial she spoke at where she rather obliviously let it be known that she thinks using the N-word is just fine. I’m not really interested enough in her—or any other cooking personality—to give much of a damn. I don’t read cookbooks (I have several, I couldn’t tell you who wrote them) and I don’t watch Food Network (we don’t have cable or dish), so this is a part of the popular zeitgeist of which I am rather oblivious.
But I do work in a bookstore now and Paula Deen has a new book coming out. I just learned that we won’t be handling it.
Here‘s a good piece on this particular aspect and a good write-up on the controversy.
Reading some of the reportage on this has put me in mind to recall all the casual bigots I’ve known over the years. In some ways they’re worse than the very up front bigots. With them you know where they stand. They pretend nothing. Take them or leave them and here’s why. No betrayed expectations.
Casual bigots—the ones who blithely reveal themselves in offhand comments and thoughtless characterizations the problems with which they clearly seem utterly unaware—sucker you in. You start to like them or you do like them. You might even find yourself building some kind of relationship with them, which suddenly, at the drop of an epithet, you’re forced to revisit.
It’s worse when you work for them. Your options become severely limited.
I worked for one such for almost nine years. He was a gregarious, congenial man with the intellectual depth of a Dick and Jane reader. Quick with a joke, always ready to see the funny side to anything, a natural-born salesman.
Who never understood why propositioning female customers or remarking that certain folks were okay because really they were white people in black skin wasn’t just, well, fine.
Whenever one of his little racist aphorisms popped out, something primal in my backbrain stirred and I wanted a bar of soap or a leather strop. He “meant nothing” by them. So why say it? I’d ask. Why is that guy (who’s white) an asshole and that guy (who’s not white) some variation of n—-r? Why can’t they both be assholes, if that’s what you mean?
And he for the life of him couldn’t get past the surface detail that the one was white and the other black. “So a black asshole is fundamentally different than a white one?”
Eyes would glaze over. Well, obviously, because, well, he’s black. Not white.
We went round and round with this for years. I continued to work there because I’d been working there before he bought the business and I loved the place. I was committed to it on several levels. He sorely challenged my devotion.
But I also thought—hubristically, perhaps—that I could turn him around. I really believed in the power of education, that if I explained it, showed him, that at some point the revelation would occur and…
The problem is, many people, possibly most, live by categories. They have separate compartments into which the different strategies and judgments they must make to get through a day are stored and rather than think it through each time, they just select among the bins. At a certain level, this is probably necessary—we all have to function on autopilot at times, else we’d overload our consciousness with decision-tree minutiae that would make coming to any decision impossible. Daniel Kahneman wrote an excellent book about this, Thinking, Fast and Slow.
But the walls of the compartments are often porous and the arrangement changes over time with new information and understanding.
For the casual bigot, though, particular compartments are very deep and filled with too much crap to be easily discarded, and the particular pathway to those compartments is a well-established trail—rut, really—and getting rid of it would require a major trauma. (I suspect in some ways dealing with an up front bigot might be easier because the walls are even less porous and it might be possible isolate that compartment and sever the connection completely—but I’m guessing there.)
It’s like the casual sexist who just can’t see what harm there is in thinking the way he—or she—thinks. After all, they don’t mean any harm, and honey, if you’re gonna be one of them feminazis, why then you’re just lookin’ for somethin’ to be offended by.
Gradually, I began to notice another aspect of his personality. I’m theorizing here, but the behavior was such that it seems a reasonable conclusion.
Losing a prejudice is directly proportional to knowing people. How well and how deeply translates to a subsequent inability to discriminate.
I don’t think he really “knew” anyone. Everything was on the surface. He went only so far even with people he genuinely liked.
Not, I think, because he couldn’t. But he’d never had to. He couldn’t make the leap to stop designating people by surface details and secondary characteristics because he treated everyone as a collection of surface details and secondary characteristics.
When he finally noticed that we’d lost many of our female customers (especially the younger, “attractive” ones), he seemed genuinely confused and I don’t think he ever recognized that his casual intimacies with them—uninvited—had driven them away. “But they laugh,” he said when I explained to him once how what he’d been saying as his then-current joke was basically sexual harrassment. They laugh, which to him meant acceptance. (Of course, when one of our customers complained to me about it and I told her next time to shut him down, well, the moment she did she went from someone he liked to a Bitch.) He never looked past that laugh to see the shock and nervousness. It was all surface.
So when someone so entrenched in certain cultural “norms”—like a Paula Deen—makes news for the apparently “innocent” remarks that have been okay in her group and among her “friends” for years, I recall that nine years of education I received in the company of someone who just never Got It. And I wonder, how well does this person know anyone? After all, Paula Deen has handlers, she has advisers, she has people whose job it is to make her aware…and if they can’t get through and break down those compartments, then I have to wonder. Obviously, it caught everyone off-guard, so it’s not like she’s an up front bigot.
I tried to explain a false syllogism once to my boss and after three sentences I glimpsed a brief manifestation of despair—he sensed, I imagine, that this was a concept that would require him to reassess…everything.
And he just wasn’t able to do that.
As for the “Why, I don’t mean nothin’ by it,” defense…well, then why did you say it in the first place? Are you always that feckless and shallow? Is there anything you say that you do mean something by?
And if not, then why are you so confused that no one will take you seriously when you apologize?