For a while, everything looked like it was coming up roses for TV chef Paula Deen. She had lucrative deals with more than a dozen major companies, a rabid fan base, and worldwide name recognition.
Now, she is notorious for something else.
In June, word got out that Deen admitted during a deposition that she had used a derogatory word to describe African-Americans.
Deen’s slip-up is yet more evidence that our society is still having trouble handling racism. When she said those words decades ago, Deen said, American culture was a different place. She’d never do the same today, she added.
In a way, Deen was right. A hundred years ago, a common entertainment was something called the minstrel show. It painted African-Americans as unintelligent and lazy. Minstrel shows relied on racial stereotypes. White people painted their faces black and gamboled around the stage acting like clowns.
In some places, minstrel shows continued in community theaters as late as the 1960s. In Great Britain, “The Black and White Minstrel Show,” featuring white performers in blackface, aired on the BBC until 1978.
These days, it’s painful to look back into history to acknowledge injustice. Outside of history class, we don’t like to remember slavery, Jim Crow laws or World War II internment camps.
That’s why the overwhelming negative reaction to Deen’s offensive verbiage is somewhat heartening. It shows that our culture no longer tolerates obvious racism the way it once did. The days of separate water fountains are, blessedly, over.
But that doesn’t mean the problem’s gone away.
We have a long way to go, and teens have a crucial role to play in making sure we develop into an equal and just society where racism is only a bad memory. In the 1960s, young people led the pack in eliminating segregation and promoting equality. Young people today can do the same.
Today’s teens deal with a different kind of racism than the one Deen grew up around. Today’s racism is the kind where people walk onto a plane and suddenly become afraid because a man wearing a turban is sitting nearby, where a person walks across the street to avoid a man in a hoodie.
We may not have minstrel shows any longer, but we have reality shows, some that use gender and racial stereotypes to make people laugh. We have disparaging jokes heard in school hallways and voluntarily segregated lunch tables in school cafeterias.
Teens can work to eradicate insidious racism in schools, churches and communities. Don’t tolerate racist talk or behavior from others. Speak up if you hear derogatory or hate words, or if you know someone is being teased or hurt because of the color of their skin, their nationality, their religion or their sexual orientation.
Nobody deserves to be treated that way, no matter who they are or where they come from.
Paula Deen is learning the hard way that racism is the wrong way to go. Are you and your friends seeing other people as human beings, or are you falling prey to the whispers of the modern minstrel show?