By now the story that Paula Deen casually admitted she had used racial epithets is old news. Further revelations that she also considered a “plantation-themed” wedding complete with white-jacketed African American men waiters contributed to the narrative of Deen as racially-insensitive at best, and racist at worst.
The admission by Deen that she has used the n-word sparked a social media debate about whether or not she is being treated fairly by the mainstream media. The New York Times reported over the weekend fans still waited in line at Deen’s restaurant in Savannah, while Deen’s defenders rallied online to her cause.
On the other side of the argument, Food Network revealed it will not renew her contract, which means her Emmy-winning cooking show will disappear taking with it her TV audience. Cable TV shopping channel QVC said it is monitoring the situation but it has no plans for Deen to appear to hawk her cookware anytime soon. USA Today quoted public relations pundits who said “Deen is done.”
Why do fans defend Deen while cable TV shows drop her faster than you can say buttered biscuits? Because Food Network and QVC understand what Deen and her fans don’t — in the US market, commercial brands cannot appear to be racist.
Of course, that wasn’t always the case. Brands like the Aunt Jemima brand and logo have been revised over the years, transforming Aunt Jemima from the bandana-wearing “mammy” of an idealized Southern plantation life, to a contemporary portrait of an attractive African American woman.
For their own economic survival, US corporations have made conscious efforts to change logos and narratives that were tied to a racist past. Paula Deen built a cooking empire on the idea of Southern charm and eccentricity embodied in over-the-top recipes and her Southern drawl. What Deen never learned was that her brand had to steer clear of the darkside of Southern history and life.
Deen’s casual “of course” admission revealed her obliviousness to the changing world around her. Gone with more than the wind is the fantasy of the South that Deen parlayed into a personal fortune. While US consumers may not mind the extra calories in her dishes, she can’t serve them with a side helping of racism.