Paula Deen’s racism controversy: Harvard psychologist calls it teachable moment

Celebrity chef Paula Deen has gotten herself into hot water again. Remember when she was blasted for hiding her Type 2 diabetes diagnosis while still pressing folks to eat cheeseburgers using a doughnut as a bun? Now Deen has purportedly made racist comments, used the N-word, and suggested having black waiters dressed as slaves serve at a relative’s wedding in a Southern restaurant she owned.

The reports came out during a May lawsuit deposition in which Deen was questioned about her racist remarks by a lawyer representing a restaurant employee who had filed the suit.

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Deen was going to explain herself on the Today show on Friday but abruptly cancelled; her company released a statement saying, “Ms. Deen recounted having used a racial epithet in the past, speaking largely about a time in American history which was quite different than today. To be clear Ms. Deen does not find acceptable the use of this term under any circumstance by anyone nor condone any form of racism or discrimination.”

At first blush, we may want to dismiss Deen as a racist totally apart from ourselves. On the other hand, we may want to use this as a self-reflective moment to consider the possibility that—to quote a satirical song from the show Avenue Q—everyone’s a little bit racist sometimes.

“Perhaps we should realize that the world is not really as post-racial as it seems,” said clinical psychologist Monica O’Neal, an instructor at Harvard Medical School. O’Neal posted on her Facebook page and asked her friends what they thought of Paula Deen—she got a variety of mixed messages, ranging from outrage at Deen’s remarks to sympathy from fans trying to make excuses for her.

O’Neal, who’s African American, said Deen’s comments—and hundreds of racist remarks posted by anonymous folks online complaining about a Cheerios commerical depicting a biracial family—should encourage talking and thinking about race and tolerance.

Living in liberal-minded Boston, it may be easy for people to simply dismiss Deen as a Southern belle glorifying her Georgia roots, but O’Neal, who spent part of her childhood in South Carolina, said she’s experienced a deeper sense of racial otherness after moving to Boston.

“When I go home to Columbia, I’m part of a large group of professional black people walking down the street, which I kind of miss in Boston,” she said. Unlike in the South, she feels an occasional sense of cultural segregation in Back Bay restaurants where nearly all the patrons are white.

Experiencing that sense of otherness, she added, can be an educational experience, regardless of your race. “Put yourself in a situation where you’re the minority and see how you feel,” she advised. “Sit with it for a while.”

That may help sensitize you to how others of different ethnicities, religions, or sexual persuasians feel when they’re the odd one out in areas you frequently inhabit.

Watch the Cheerios commercial posted above and note what you feel when you watch it. Does the family seem jarring to you? O’Neal and I both agreed that having more interracial families portrayed on TV sitcoms would help them gain more cultural acceptance in the real world.

“To some degree, racism rests in our unconscious,” O’Neal said. While it may be easier to let racial epithets go when you hear them at a family dinner, you need to realize that silence gives the sense that you condone the words. In that sense, many of us may veer into Paula Deen territory from time to time. Having this awareness may enable us to do so less often.