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.