Jimmy Carter has come to the rescue of Paula Deen suggesting that some of the “‘oppressed and poverty-stricken’ people that Deen has helped through programs in Savannah should speak out about her work in the community, as a way to show how ‘she has changed in her relationship with African-American people’ over the years.” In the meantime, a list of grievances filed by a white employee against Paula Deen and her brother implies a systematic level of racism and oppression that goes way beyond the use of the N-word. This has caused most of my Facebook friends to ask out loud: “why hasn’t anyone stepped up before?”
I have the answer to that question. For a very short period of time, I worked for Danielle Steele in San Francisco – a friend had referred me to her and naively, I went for an interview and took a job I imagined would introduce me to publishers and agents galore. I’m a writer and though I abhor Steele’s books and her fame as one of the highest paid writers in the United States, I also could not ignore the potential her caché offered. After three weeks of feeling like I had sold my soul to the devil, I left but not first without a finger wagging at Steele – about the manipulative and deceptive power she wielded over people in her employ. All of whom were scared to speak out against her for fear of losing their job (read: money, status).
And so we come to those who were working for Paula Deen when the lawsuit was filed. Jimmy Carter suggests those who benefited from her programs in Savannah might be there to help her because she helped them (read: provided money and prestige, if not a little fame by proxy). Interestingly, nary a one has stood up. That’s not to say that Deen and her new PR machine won’t try to buy their support – more will be revealed on this front.
Which brings me to say shame on you Jimmy Carter, a man who I have admired since I campaigned for you back in the 70s. In order for Paula Deen to have an ally, she needed to be one, and on this, without knowing her personally, I can say without a doubt, she fell far short of expectations.
Paula Deen is/was a Southern white, privileged woman with a whole lot of money and celebrity. In order to be considered an ally to people of color, she would have needed to do the following:
1) understand the privilege that was conferred on her by being white is not a right or a deserved entitlement, but rather an arbitrary advantage or benefit enjoyed by an individual or a group, based upon prejudicial and or discriminatory norms, attitudes and practices.*
2) worked to develop an understanding of the history and needs of people of color
3) commit to social justice
4) commit to personal growth no matter how uncomfortable or challenging it might be
5) show support for people of color through actions, not words
6) confront oppressive jokes, slurs, and actions. Knows that silence may communicate condoning of an oppressive statement
7) create a comfortable work environment by empowering people of color, and being conscious of cultural imperialism and appropriation
8) assume that people of color are survivors, not victims
9) know that one has to fight oppression whether the people of color in the group respond or not
10) not expect gratitude from people of color**
* “What is Privilege?” Adapted from Wildman, S. M., & Davis, A. D. “Language and Silence: Making Systems of Privilege Visible.”
** Definitions adapted from Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice. Ed. Adams, Bell & Griffin.
In short, to have an ally, one needs to be an ally – otherwise you stand (fall) alone.