Paula Deen And The Celebrity Atonement Industry

Over at ThinkProgress, Alyssa Rosenberg makes a series of stellar points about how the fixation on Paula Deen's past misadventures in the world of race-relations may eventually prove to be her salvation, as "an industry that’s grown up to support celebrity rehabilitation, and to exploit celebrity downfall," gears up to deliver its own brand of celebrity penance.

And how might that penance be delivered? Well, as Rosenberg notes, there are extant rumors that the folks who produce "Dancing With The Stars" may offer Deen a chance to paso doble her way to racial transcendence. As Rosenberg points out, DWTS provides a massive "likability engine" that offers "participants a framework to attract supporters and to leverage their personalities against those of other minor or shamed so-called stars." The dancers work hard, bruise their bodies and offer tearful takes on how much they've learned and grown from their experience. It's actually about as close as you can come to a Calvinist ballroom dance competition.

Now, I have a feeling that Deen may opt out of the Dancing With The Stars route to absolution, but that's hardly the only way to make your way through the game of infotainment penitence. In fact, I'm happy to lay my marker down right now and predict that Deen might follow in the footsteps of Lance Armstrong and throw herself at the mercy of Oprah Winfrey, who persists as pop-culture's ultimate confessor. (Frankly, if Deen's "handlers" haven't considered this option, then they are probably not very good handlers.)

Regardless if my prediction comes to pass or not, Deen will ultimately find ironic solace in the fact that everyone is mostly fixated on the fact that she has used racially charged language. Let's go back to Rosenberg:

Deen’s accusers haven’t just suggested that she used ugly words. They’ve alleged that she created a broadly discriminatory environment, and that she asked them to work for free. An investigation by the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition into Deen’s employment practices suggest that many workers in Deen’s businesses have had good experiences, but also that many of them fear retaliation, and that some feel there’s an environment of racial discrimination in promotions and raises. Those allegations are significant and important, and deserve just as much attention as Deen’s language. But they’re also less shocking and sexy, and less easy to dismiss as a somehow-forgivable relic of the past than Deen’s use of ugly words or antiquated sense of aesthetics.

Right now, the fact that we are overly fixated on the "shocking and sexy" part of l'affaire Paula Deen is the best thing that Deen has going for her. There is the sort of racism that involves the casual use of slurs, and then there is the sort of racism that literally plucks money from a person's pocket, and it's too bad that the latter version doesn't shock us more.

Racism is not a naturally occurring condition. It is learned behavior, and for that reason, I think that it's proper to believe that one can atone for it. But in Deen's case, atoning for the language still leaves us with the workplace discrimination and the hostile work environment and the wage theft! We should remember that stuff, and not let Deen dance past it.

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Paula Deen Racism Scandal Timeline