Paula Deen, the 66-year-old Savannah kitchen celebrity, has been swamped in controversy since court documents filed last week revealed Deen told an attorney questioning her under oath last month that she has used the "n-word."
The documents show Deen sat down for a deposition May 17 in a discrimination lawsuit filed last year by a former employee, Lisa Jackson. Jackson managed Uncle Bubba's Seafood and Oyster House, a Savannah restaurant owned by Deen and her brother, Bubba Hiers. The federal lawsuit contends that racial slurs and jokes about women, Jews and blacks were common. Workers were intimidated and pornography was left on computers in the kitchen.
During the deposition, Deen was peppered with questions about her racial attitudes. At one point she was asked if she thought jokes using the "n-word" are "mean." Deen says jokes often target minority groups and "I can't, myself, determine what offends another person."
Deen also acknowledged she briefly considered hiring all black waiters for her brother's 2007 wedding.
The Food Network, which made Deen a star with "Paula's Home Cooking" in 2002 and later "Paula's Home Cooking" in 2008, weighed in with a terse statement last Friday: they would not renew her contract when it expires at the end of the month. Deen retaliated with direct appeal via online video.
"Inappropriate, hurtful language is totally, totally unacceptable," Deen said in the first 45-second video posted on YouTube. "I've made plenty of mistakes along the way but I beg you, my children, my team, my fans, my partners - I beg for your forgiveness." In a second video, Deen insists, "Your color of your skin, your religion, your sexual preference does not matter to me."
Deen's troubles only intensified Monday when accusations from another former employee, a black man named Sheldon J. Ervin, said he was forced to work events at Deen's mansion on several occasions without pay, and previously filed an Equal Employment Opportunity and Diversity complaint.
Smithfield Foods, whose hams and other products Deen has endorsed since 2006, also severed its relationship with her on Monday. Smithfield, the world's largest pork producer, has been the flagship in Ms. Deen's collection of at least 17 licensing and endorsement partnerships.
"Smithfield condemns the use of offensive and discriminatory language and behavior of any kind," Keira Lombardo, a Smithfield spokeswoman, said in a statement.
Many other business partners are also teetering, including home shopping giant QVC. And a rep for Sears Holdings, which sells Deen's products at Kmart and Sears, stated earlier this week that the company "is exploring next steps as they pertain to Ms. Deen's products" and Target is "evaluating the situation."
Deen blames her Southern heritage for her offensives (southwest Georgia is known for its rabid resistance to the civil rights advancements). She argues that she doesn't actually like the slavery of the old South, just the way it looked. She refers to the slaves that her great-grandfather owned as more like family, without recognizing they weren't there voluntarily.
She once described a good friend during an interview as "being as black as that board." "Come out, we can't see you standing in front of that board," she said while pointing to the black scrim panels behind the set. She doesn't see such remarks as a patronizing characterization.
Some people argue that the problem with Deen's ideals is not that she should have known better, it's that she didn't see anything wrong with them in the first place. I completely disagree. I think she knows exactly what her ideals are, and has had no reason to change them until now.
I don't believe Deen is apologetic in the least. She is trying to salvage her career. Personally, I'm glad that she's being made an example of. If racism is to go away in this country, then it cannot be tolerated, whether it's upbringing, satire, or just sheer ignorance.
Sarah T. Schwab is a Sunday OBSERVER contributor and Fredonia State graduate. Send comments to
or view her Web site at www.SarahTSchwab.com