Paula Deen, old people and the N-word

Paula Deen, via a leaked transcript of a deposition, recent revealed that she had used the N-word.

Q: Miss Deen, have you told racial jokes? Have you ever used the N word
A: Yes, of course.
Q: Okay.In what context?
A: Well, it was probably when a black man burst into the bank that I was working at and put a gun to my head.
Q: Okay.
Q: And what did you say?
A: Well, I don't remember, but the gun was dancing all around my temple.
Q: Okay.
A: I didn't -- I didn't feel real favorable towards him.
Q: Okay.Well, did you use the N word to him as he pointed a gun in your head at your face?
A: Absolutely not.
Q: Well, then, when did you use it?
A: Probably in telling my husband.
Q: Okay. Have you used it since then?
A: I'm sure I have, but it's been a very long time.
Q: Can you remember the context in which you have used the N word?
A: No.
Q: Has it occurred with sufficient frequency that you cannot recall all of the various
A: No, no.
Q: Well, then tell me the other context in which you've used the N word?
A: I don't know, maybe in repeating something that was said to me.
Q: Like a joke?
A: No, probably a conversation between blacks. I don't -- I don't know.
Q: Okay.
A: But that's just not a word that we use as time has gone on. Things have changed since the '60s in the south.
The transcript and Deen's subsequent apologies ended up with Deen's contract with the Food Network being cancelled. My first reaction is that this seemed like a tough penalty for admitting to using a racial word nearly thirty years ago, and maybe a few times since, in saucy banter with the kitchen staff.

Yet the N-word still has power to hurt, which is why the recent attempts at smearing Trayvon Martin for referring to neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman as a "cracker" have fallen flat. Calling a white (or light-skinned Hispanic) a "cracker" may be derogatory, but it does not carry the economic and social punch of calling a black person the N-word. Derogating blacks with slurs ends up making it harder for them to vote, or start businesses, or get mortgages, or send their kids to a good school. Derogating whites with slurs might make them mad or feel bad, but otherwise does them no real harm.

It's hard to know exactly what is going on in Deen's case. Is she a well-meaning, fairly unracist white who made unwarranted assumptions about the complex linguistic territory of post-civil rights America? If blacks refer to themselves with the N-word in her presence, is it OK to join in, or better to refrain? Is a white person a racist for using the word when people of color are tossing it around casually? Or does the word automatically and always bear more freight when uttered by a white?

The recent ruling by the Supreme Court that gutted a key provision of the Voting Rights Act seems based on the dubious notion that racism is all gone, bye-bye. But a look into our hearts, especially for those of us over forty, might show that race is still a powerful factor in our thinking. Growing up, we heard racial, ethnic and gender jokes. We "got" what the jokes taught -- that the Polish and French-Canadians were stupid; Irish were clever drunks; blacks were disgusting, lazy and second-class; women were not smart and couldn't drive well. We may have covered over those old reactions with filters and revisions and workarounds. But they are still there and we have to remind ourselves not to laugh. Or to laugh socially -- as when a cousin told me a racist jokes after my mother's funeral. Like the Israelites wandering the desert with Moses, our generation will have to pass away before we can enter the promised land of post-racism.

Meanwhile, based only on what I know so far (which is that Deen herself did not discriminate based on racial or gender grounds) I would be liable to let her off with a stern warning. The post-racial millennium is not yet upon us. Our consciences are not yet clear. We have not yet done leveling the playing field for those kept out of the stadium for centuries. As long as the N-word has power to harm, and discrimination has the power to restrain the freedoms of a wide swath of our fellow citizens, it has no place in the lexicon of loving human beings. Even as a joke. Even in justifiable anger. Even as a throwaway historical reference.