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Punishing our racist grandma

There was this Thanksgiving dinner at my aunt’s in Houston. That morning we’d read about a school that still used corporal punishment. A white teacher had paddled a black student. People were up in arms about the obvious racial overtones, and my grandmother offered that she “wouldn’t want no niggers beatin’ on her kids, neither.” This occasioned lots of eye-rolling from the grandchildren and gentle rebukes from our parents. Then someone passed the gravy.

As a typical Southern white family, we didn’t talk much about race. But whenever the older generation hauled it indelicately to the surface, it was an opportunity for us grandkids to see the ugliness our country would rather forget. For our parents it was a teachable moment. It was useful, instructive even, to have a racist grandma at the table.

Which brings us to Paula Deen. Polite society has tried to sweep her ugliness under the carpet where we can safely ignore it.

That’s exactly the wrong thing to do. As perverse as it may seem, you cannot have a National Conversation About Race and not invite racists to be a part of that conversation. Deen represents a sizable constituency in this discussion. There’s little use pretending that mentality doesn’t exist. All we do is push it back into the shadows where it waits to spill out again.

Deen is America’s racist grandma, and we should treat her as such. Racist Grandma may be racist, but she’s also your grandma. You can’t just disown her.

And, contrary to what some might think, having a racist grandma isn’t entirely bad. Seeing that gene and knowing you’re predisposed is a warning sign, a nagging reminder to take preventive measures for yourself. I say let’s push racist Grandma back to center stage and let her keep talking.

The counterargument to keeping Deen on the air is that someone with her views shouldn’t be rewarded with a lucrative TV contract, and that’s fair as far as it goes. But Deen is already a millionaire. Shehas a platform. That has value. Eliminating that platform helps no one. Should she be punished? Of course. As a public figure, Deen has responsibilities. Which is precisely why she should be forced to remain on television.

Because here’s the thing about white people: They hate dealing with race – are incapable of dealing with it, in large part. What better penance could there be than to have Deen stand in front of a camera and open her mouth and do her job? Because she’s become far more than just a TV chef. She has set herself up as a voice for all that is good about the South. And one thing the South can rightly be proud of is its food – a big bucket of deep-fried awesome.

Southern food also perfectly captures the complexities and contradictions of how race is lived in that part of the country. When you find moments of genuine interracial community in the South, it’s usually over red beans and rice or a huge slab of ribs; food may be what poor Southern whites and poor Southern blacks have most in common.

But Southern cuisine also gives fuel to some of our worst racial stereotypes. Fried chicken and watermelon. And the politics of food, of who serves what to whom, the very thing that got Deen in trouble with her antebellum dinner party, is ever present. Whether it’s whites refusing to serve blacks at the lunch counter or blacks in dinner jackets serving the soup to whites, you could write a whole book on the power dynamics of putting a plate on a table below the Mason-Dixon Line.

Food and race and the South – it’s a minefield. And I would love to see Deen walk through it on national television. She knows where she screwed up and why, and to have to face that with the whole country watching? Just imagine it: with no pause for “reflection,” with the eyes of a multiracial nation upon her and “the N-word” like a yoke around her neck, Deen standing in front of a big Sunday spread. Let her explain where all that good food came from and see if she can learn how to do it without putting her racist foot in her mouth. Then, when she screws up, make her go back and do it again. That would be a punishment that fits the crime. It would make her a better person. It would make our National Conversation About Race a conversation worth having. And it would also make fantastic television.

Tanner Colby is the author of “Some of My Best Friends Are Black: The Strange Story of Integration in America.” He wrote this for Slate.