Paula Deen's Southern White Dreams of Subservient Black Maids and Butlers
According to the court documents, Jackson states that she was appointed by Deen to handle the catering and staff for Bubba’s wedding in 2007, and she asked Deen what the servers should wear: “Well what I would really like is a bunch of little niggers to wear long-sleeve white shirts, black shorts and black bow ties, you know in the Shirley Temple days, they used to tap dance around,” Jackson alleges Deen told her. “Now, that would be a true Southern wedding wouldn’t it? But we can’t do that because the media would be on me about that.”
Scholars and students of film often use the phrase “breaking the fourth wall.”
This is the moment when suspension of disbelief is removed, and the film “winks” at the audience in a moment where the latter are made to realize that what they are seeing is not real, and its creators (and actors) are choosing to obey—or break—genre conventions.
Scholars who study race and racial ideologies often talk about how in the post civil rights United States racism has moved from what they call “the front stage” (the public and the readily seen) to the “backstage” (what is more hidden and private).
Consequently, being called a “racist” is the impetus for public shaming and exile. In response, white racism has moved to private spaces, uses humor and comedy as a shield, and takes refuge online.
Food celebrity Paula Deen’s admission in a recent anti-discrimination lawsuit that she routinely uses racial slurs such as “nigger”, and how she yearns for a return to Jim and Jane Crow America, is an almost perfect moment where she broke the metaphorical fourth wall of racism in the Age of Obama.
In her deposition she explained how:
[W]hen asked if she wanted black men to play the role of slaves at a wedding she explained she got the idea from a restaurant her husband and her had dined at saying, “The whole entire waiter staff was middle-aged black men, and they had on beautiful white jackets with a black bow tie.
“I mean, it was really impressive. That restaurant represented a certain era in America…after the Civil War, during the Civil War, before the Civil War…It was not only black men, it was black women…I would say they were slaves.”
Such images remain potent in American popular culture. And for some white folks of a certain age, as well as those possessed of a conservative, Right-wing political orientation, such images embody “real America”, and a "simpler" time before black and brown folks "forgot their place", the gays and lesbians came out of the closet, and women embraced feminism.
Paula Deen also embodies the moment of “race and reunion” that occurred after America’s Civil War. In the aftermath of a conflict which took at least 750,000 lives, whites in the North and former Confederacy had to find a way to come together as a whole and intact political community.
The solution: reimagining the Confederacy’s illegal acts of treason and secession as a noble lost cause.
North and South were both invested in White Supremacy and creating a society wherein African-Americans were a subordinated and dominated class of people.
Race and reunion involved a rewriting of American history such that slavery was remade into a benign and civilizing institution: the plantation was an idyllic and wonderful place. In this twisted vision, African-Americans, especially men, would descend into idleness, rapine behavior, and be a threat to white civilization unless they were controlled by violence and lynch law.
This lie of a noble and idyllic South, with its happy loyal slaves, continues to cast a shadow over post civil rights America.
For example, movies such as Gone with the Wind remain popular. Civil War reenactors march off as members of the Confederacy; they see themselves as good men involved in a futile struggle—not as agents defending white supremacy and racial terrorism. Award winning music groups such as Lady Antebellum channel a nostalgic view of the pre-Civil War South through the white racial frame in order to depict a historical milieu of white supremacy that ought to be yearned and pined for by their audiences.
Ultimately, Paula Deen’s desires are White yearnings for black subordination and submission.
As the Jim Crow Museum details, the black mammy maid figure is a lie which does the social and political work of convincing white people that black women (and other people of color) live to serve them. The black butler or Tom figure does similar work. They are both two-dimensional characters who are asexual, robbed of their full humanity, and eager to serve white people.
Such figures remain iconic. See the caricatures Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima in almost every American supermarket.
Stories of resistance to these White fantasies are also removed from the dreams of Paula Deen and the White conservatives who yearn for a return to “real America.”
Those happy smiling black maids were also peeing in food and taking their monies to help support the nascent Civil Rights movement. Nameless black butlers and Pullman Car porters—those men named “George”—were freedom fighters readying to resist and mobilize against White Supremacy.
The election of the country’s first black president is symbolically potent. Paula Deen’s desire for a return to Jim and Jane Crow is a reflection of a broader anxiety among the White American body politic and collective subconscious.
There, black and brown folks should be maids and butlers. A black family is in the White House. America’s demographics are changing because of immigration. Therefore, a particular type of Whiteness feels particularly imperiled in this social and political moment. Whatever one thinks of Obama's policies, for a good portion of Red State America, it is the fact of his personhood and blackness that is the real affront and crime.
What is the result? Movies and TV shows that emphasize the destruction of America and the White House since the election of Barack Obama. There are also forthcoming historical biopics such as The Butler about a noble black servant who served a series of presidents in the White House across several decades. TV shows such as Devious Maids fulfill the type-casting and stereotype of Hispanics and Latinas as natural servants.
Paula Deen’s fantasy of black and brown compliance, surrender, and subordination has connections to some of the country’s most ugly moments since the election of Barack Obama.
Birtherism, and Republican Joe Wilson's heckling of President Barack Obama during his State of the Union Address in 2009 is a parallel to Paula Deen’s fantasy.
Conspiranoid fantasies of Secession and a second Civil War are also part of this national derangement on the part of the White Right and Tea Party GOP. The murder of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, and how Republicans have rallied to Zimmerman's defense, is a reflection of a foundational assumption that black people must always be subservient, and surrender to White authority--as well as those overly identified and enamored with it--in any circumstance.
Projecting forward, at the end of her saga Paula Deen will be forced to publicly apologize for her racism. In that moment, and keeping with script, she will also channel some tears in order to get back into the good graces of her fans.
I believe that Paula Deen should be given an award for being so real and transparent about her racial attitudes. She exposed the backstage of white racism in post civil rights America.
Paula Deen is not alone in her feelings; Paula Deen's biggest sin is that she was just too honest and forthright for her own good.