Paula Dean Words and Meaning, Sponsorships and Offense

Like many people, I've been following the continuing story of the restaurateur and TV food personality Paula Deen -- the news of her deposition, her tearful video and television apologies, her being dropped from lucrative endorsement deals.

Her situation highlights not only the ongoing state of race relations in the United States, but also the nature of celebrity endorsements, and how quickly we take offense.

First, about race in the U.S. As we celebrate our nation's independence, our lives, liberty and pursuit of happiness, we still cannot erase racial injustice. Anyone who thinks that the re-election of President Barack Obama to a second term has led us into a post-racial age need only look at the shocking, dismaying Twitter comments following his victory and inauguration to see that ugly, ignorant and indefensible racism is still, unfortunately, all-too alive in America. Paula Deen's casual use of the "n" word pales in comparison to the vitriol in the Twitter-verse.

A friend recently alerted me to an excellent exhibition at New York's Metropolitan Museum, "The Civil War and American Art." Beyond the transcendent landscapes of Frederic Edwin Church and Sanford R. Gifford which, despite their surface realism are symbolic and allegorical, and the emotional and dramatic battlefront and home front paintings by Winslow Homer and Eastman Johnson, it iss evident that the import and trauma of the war was something unprecedented.

You could see that at the time, artists -- and everyone else -- were grasping at ways to redeem it and make sense of it. The horror and contradiction of slavery more and more seem central to the narrative of America. Then, and now.

Which is why the brouhaha surrounding Paula Deen is not a simple knee-jerk reaction to a celebrity's misspeaking or her unthinking use of racially charged words. We are still not only conflicted by race in America, we are ashamed of our guilt and our continuing complicity, whether acknowledged or uncovered.

Celebrity endorsements are fraught as well: they can quickly backfire. Think of the many celebrities who refused to tailor themselves to an image that a corporate sponsor required, or those whose infelicities led to having their contracts terminated: Tiger Woods, Michael Phelps, Ludacris, Rick Ross, Rihanna and many others.

The thing is: if you sign a celebrity because of that celebrity's edgy image, you can't expect the celebrity to change for you. At the same time, if you sign a celebrity because of an image that you think will promote the wholesomeness of your products, you are delusional if you think the celebrity doesn't also suffer from the terminal state of being human, with all of the follies, missteps and lunacies that involves.

Corporations are quick to renege on contracts because not only is a lot of money at stake in the endorsement contracts themselves, but the corporate brand can be compromised by its association with a suddenly tainted celebrity whose face adorns corporate marketing. Frankly, this is the bottom line acting, more than sensitivity to social inequalities or racial stereotyping.

Sure, people are quick to take offense today. But people are also right to demand that they be spoken of with respect: Words have power. Why else would gay men and women chant, "We're here, we're queer, get used to it," or black American rappers use the "n" word with such frequency and ferocity in their songs, or why else would an early and influential rap group call itself N.W.A. if not to take back a supercharged word from oppressors and use it as a taunt against the oppressors' own sense of propriety?

But back to today: You'd think we wouldn't need celebrity meltdowns to remind us of how far we haven't come, despite the progress made in treating our fellow citizens as equals.

But as long as there are celebrities, there will be celebrity meltdowns. As long as there are celebrity endorsements, there will be celebrity missteps. And as long as people continue to think that other people are less fully human than they themselves, none of us will ever truly be able to proclaim that we live in the land of the free and the home of the brave.