Benevolent Racism or the ‘Miss Millie’ in Paula Deen
It’s been a little surprising to see so many companies ending their relationships with Paula Deen after her sketchy behavior and comments on race came to light. Let the record show (*Claire Huxtable voice*) that people in media have said all manner of despicably racist things in public and private and failed to suffer any lasting consequences. What’s more, folks of all backgrounds love Paula Deen like the fatty cooked food she makes. So it’s been eyebrow raising to see this woman catching all kinds of hell in the media and on Twitter, but as I watch it all go down, I hope the conversation doesn’t end here. My hope is that Deen’s predicament opens the door to a larger discussion, as she’s representative of one of the most insidious and harmful kinds of racism there is.
Judging from the comments she made in her deposition, Deen is what you want to call a benevolent racist. A classic example: Miss Millie from The Color Purple.
Watching Deen’s monstrous failure on The Today Show while her wig got snatched on social media and profits from The Food Network, Walmart, Smithfield Foods, and Caesars Entertainment continued to slip through her aging but impeccably manicured hands, I couldn’t help but remember the final scene of Miss Millie (Deen’s spirit animal) – confused, exasperated, arms flailing, hollering to the heavens, “But I’ve always been good to you people!”
Benevolent racists don’t hate black people, per se. You won’t catch them riding, hooded, into the night with crosses ready to burn. Many are personable, even lovable. Still, they have an inherent belief in the inferiority of black people that’s just as problematic as blatant, violent, or outwardly offensive racism. They make everyday decisions – who to hire, who to vote for, what kind of jokes to tell, who to sympathize with in a conflict – that are based on race and are absolutely damaging to people of color. Their thinking may lead them to believe that it’s a good idea to dress men like slaves for a party, or that an unarmed teenage boy deserves to be gunned down by a vigilante in the street. No matter how glaring or subtle, their biased thinking is dangerous; benevolent racists don’t see themselves as racists, and so they never choose to modify their behavior.
One of the things we’re taught in screenwriting is that the most well-written villains – the most dastardly and wicked – are the ones who believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that what they’re doing is right. I’d say the same is true in life: oftentimes, those who do the most harm don’t believe they’re doing harm at all.
There’s lots to learn from this situation. One, that “harmless” racism is actually pretty harmful. Two, that as we get older we’re bound to find that some of our habits – like cooking carb-laden viddles and using racial slurs – just don’t line up with modern society or modern media, and we have to evolve or be left behind.
And here’s a third lesson for good measure: that racism is systemic. One of the troubling things about Americans is that we love to lay blame. We tend to treat crimes as isolated incidents rather than the symptoms of system-wide dysfunction that they are. It’s easier to condemn a school shooter as a monster than it is to deal with school bullying, mental illness, family trauma, or lax gun laws. And it’s easier to fire and publicly condemn Paula Deen as a bigot than it is to deal with the deep and abiding sickness of racism infecting this country. When we reduce this situation to one person and whether she keeps her job, we miss the point.
But maybe, hopefully, this time will be different. Maybe instead of settling for a sniveling videotaped apology and moving on to the next piece of news, we can actually start to reexamine our definitions of racism, and take some responsibility.
Latest posts by jai tiggett (see all)
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