Paula Deen, Proposition 8, and the sometimes-nuance of bigotry

Quite a week.

Paula Deen brings the “N” word into national discourse, and the Supreme Court strikes down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act.

Yet, a day after this stunning reversal in our march toward civil rights, the Defense of Marriage Act is overturned, and marriage equality is affirmed.

It’s hard to make sense of it all. But here are two lessons I’ve taken from this week.

The first lesson is about our consumer culture and the role of brands.

Paula Deen has been a train wreck this week because she doesn’t understand the difference between a celebrity and a brand. She thinks she’s a celebrity. She’s wrong.

The Paula Deen brand is a fantasy of southern warmth and graciousness, based around comfort food. It’s a fantasy world where racism (and diabetes) don’t exist.

Paul Deen (photo courtesy of the Food Network)

Paul Deen (photo courtesy of the Food Network)

The first blow to the fantasy was her admission that she is in fact diabetic. The uproar over that should have been her first clue to her existence as a brand. Consumers project their hopes and aspirations onto a brand – we all wanted to believe we could eat Paula’s butter-laden food without consequence. When you rip that dream away from us, we get mad.

We also don’t want moral complexity from our brands.

When asked under oath is she’d ever used the “N” word, Deen replied: “Of course.”

It was the worst possible answer – albeit true and authentic to her culture and upbringing. Two sticks of butter we can take, but please don’t serve us the brutal honesty, and reality, of race relations in America. No one has an appetite for that!

Failing to understand brand dynamics, her horrendous defense this week has only made the problem worse, and her brand has become aligned with Mel Gibson, Michael Richards, among others.

And the Food Network and Smithfield Foods, fully understanding brand dynamics, have run as quickly as they could away from her.

The second lesson is about our need to simplify and reduce people to a single label.

In both the Paula Deen brouhaha, and during the Prop 8 battle, we saw how people are sometimes treated as brands instead of, well, people.

Labeling Paula Deen a racist makes all of us feel better about our own degrees of racism – we can point to “it” over there, as if none of “it” was also inside of us. When we divide the world up that way, and group people as racist, homophobic, sexist, etc., we risk reducing them to something more like brands, than like the people they truly are. We deprive them of the ability to be complex, to grow, and to change. Even the redemption narrative, so common in our culture, requires a bipolar theory of life: you were one thing, now you’re redeemed and you’ve become its opposite.

This point came home to me reading about a family in California that had been very involved in the fight in favor of Proposition 8 – the ballot measure that repealed, and banned, gay marriage in California in 2008 (and was just, de facto, struck down by the Supreme Court).

From the LA Times:

Wendy Montgomery, 37, of Bakersfield and her husband supported Proposition 8 in 2008 but changed their position “180 degrees” after they learned their 13-year-old son was gay a year and a half ago. Montgomery, a practicing Mormon, said she voted for the measure and spent a couple of days canvassing and working on a phone bank for it.

“We’re Mormon. The church asked us to participate in Prop. 8, and we did, pretty much unthinking,” she said.

When her son came out, he told his parents he had at first planned never to tell them he was gay, because he thought they hated gay people because they had supported Proposition 8.

I suspect in 2008 most of us would have described the Montgomerys as homophobes and bigots.

But what seems clear now is that they are in fact thoughtful loving people who work hard to incorporate their faith with the reality of everyday life. They are complex people, capable of growth and change — and change they did, for the better. They are exactly the sort of people I’d like to have in my life, and they’ve exhibited exactly the kind of change the gay community should welcome.

That doesn’t excuse what the Montgomerys did in 2008.  But it does suggest that there was, and is, more nuance to their bigotry than first met the eye. (See Ken Mehlman, or Senator Portman.)

If we’re to stay on a path toward justice, we need to create a world where Paula Deen, the Montgomerys, the Mehlmans and the Portmans of the world are discussed in public discourse as full people, not simply as bipolar labels incapable of imperfection, or improvement. A world where their own personal growth (and the potential for it) is supported, cultivated and acknowledged, along with our own.

In the future, I’m going to try to do better embracing the complexity of my fellow human beings, and avoiding labels.

And butter.

(Originally posted by Mike Bento to his personal blog.)

Mike Bento is a branding and marketing consultant based in Washington DC, with clients in the non-profit, corporate and government sectors. Mike was one of the founding volunteers of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, and serves on the board of Food and Friends, in Washington DC. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeBento.

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