What can Paula Deen’s mistakes teach us? The Huffington Postreported, “The 66-year-old Savannah kitchen celebrity has been swamped in controversy since court documents filed this week revealed Deen told an attorney questioning her under oath last month that she has used the N-word.” Her employer, the Food Network, has decided not to renew her contract, which expires at the end of June. Operating only on information that can be obtained publically, and without any knowledge of details not released, there is still much in the story that applies to our work.
First, let’s acknowledge with applause the changes that have taken place in Deen’s lifetime. Deen was born in the South in the late nineteen forties, to a family which lived in the back of their store and gas station. Raised during segregation and coming of age during the civil rights movement, the high school cheerleader married at nineteen. Decades later, after multiple relocations, two children, a battle with mental illness, and a divorce, eventually, the celebrity emerges. This is chronicled in her autobiography which was lapped up by her fans. Much of the culture of her childhood has changed but the residue of it remains.
In her lifetime, the language of our society has morphed. We no longer use of the “n” word; it is a disparaging term that demeans us all. We have moved from using “Negro,” to “Black,” to “African American”, and “Person of Color.” We have eradicated, hopefully, the use of the terms “Mick” “Wop” and “Kike.” Unfortunately, new immigrants and those on the cultural fringe would say that we really haven’t evolved as a society. We have only invented their replacements.
We are gradually drifting away from being the world’s proud “melting pot.” In this century, we can be more aptly described as a mosaic. We are differing heritages, ethnicities and races maintaining and celebrating our traditions, while, for the most part, peacefully coexisting as Americans. The new lawsuit against Deen and her firing reveal that to us. Ah, Paula, it is not the fifties anymore...and you are a celebrity with influence.
As educational leaders, we, too, grew up in the culture of a time and its values were inculcated into us. Those may not be the values we espouse today. But, old prejudices, old values and old language slip through sometimes. We must be vigilant. Our first lessons from the Deen story are personal. Know thyself. Be truthful in self-examination of our inner thoughts and our conversations behind closed doors and with our “safe friends” in homes or clubs. Be aware of our own actions. Do you seek those who are your friends to sit with at events or do you make yourself a bit uncomfortable and sit with those who are different? People are always watching. There are consequences for public figures.
Paula Deen claims to have not used that term for a “very long time.” She has apologized for its use. The question arises, if that is so, why should she be fired? The Food Network is distancing itself from the association with her as a representative of them. From a business point of view, it certainly makes sense. This is only the most recent in a series of controversies she has brought upon herself. It seems to be the last straw. The Network is making an extremely important statement: there is no tolerance for bigotry, none. They may also be saying they’ve had her back through pork controversies and diabetes drug debates. Enough is enough.
On this point there are also issues worthy of our attention. One is our need to know the length of the employer tolerance line and where it ends. She apparently didn’t know it would run out. Our business requires that we are clear for employees and students alike. We cannot tolerate bigotry either. We must be vigilant to eradicate it from our schools. In its subtleness, it perpetuates itself in some of the worst stories of bullying. Our employees and students may be surprised when their actions bring consequences they don’t like, but they should not have cause to assert they didn’t know what we expected. The same is true for us. The use of a gay slur, a vacation photo posted on Facebook, the unwelcome remark or joke... those behind the doors thoughts that slip out as actions...reveal us. They show people who we are and cause us to explain ourselves. When they do, there will be fall out. Ask Paula Deen.
Paula Deen Controversy
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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.