Every day and hour it seems like another sponsor drops TV butter queen Paula Deen. The broadcast air is filled with reports, apologies, criticism and Paula, Paula, Paula. She admitted using the "N" word in the past and is being accused of other things in a civil suit. Although I've watched Deen's show and even tried a few of her recipes, you can't call me a fan. I've never disliked her, either, but this recent firestorm had me thinking angry thoughts at first and then feeling sorry for her because of the level of hate raining down on her for the same mistakes most of us have made at some point in our lives. Before I say anything more about her, I have some confessions to make about my own family. In my house growing up in the '60s and '70s, the "N" word was used occasionally, usually in a joke or in passing. I didn't think anything about it and neither did my parents or just about anyone I knew. The word wasn't used out of hatred, at least by anyone I knew. Perhaps I was naive, but Polish people were called the "P" word. Italian people were called the "W" word. Rednecks were called, well, rednecks. White trash were called just that. What I do know is that although my dad occasionally used the "N" word, he also refused, as a high school football player in the 1940s, to eat in a restaurant that wouldn't serve his black teammate and friend. He also told me the pain he felt as a young boy when he spent hot summer days in the community swimming pool and Hispanic and black children could only watch through the fence.
My mom, who I don't think used the "N" word but probably did at least once, defiantly drank out of a "colored" water fountain as a child, and I've admired her my entire life for that. As she laid on a hospital bed dying just more than a year ago, I told the nurse that story. I felt the need to tell this stranger something about my mom that I hold dear. My dad wouldn't allow my brothers to attend a childhood birthday party at their friend's house because the neighbor parent wouldn't invite a school friend who was black. He also invited black friends from work to our house every now and then and it just wasn't a big deal. My mom held Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the highest regard. She taught me to understand what he was about and why he is one of the greatest men ever. I vividly recalled that day he was assassinated, and she told me the news with tears running down her cheeks. As for me, I used to use the "N" word without thinking twice back in the day. It was never out of malice but out of habit or whatever makes us use some of the stupid words we use. That all changed for me, however. When I went to college all of a sudden that kind of talk went away. My brain awakened to know it was wrong, whether black people call each other that word or not. The "N" word had connotations way deeper than most other silly words we call people. It became a vile word that I just won't use and it stops me in my tracks when I hear people use it today. Don't get me wrong. There are many racists and bigots. I run into them frequently, and I hold them in disdain. The ones I encounter quickly learn my feelings about the matter. It reminds me that although we've come a long way regarding race, we still have a long way to go. Paula Deen, a woman of the South who grew up with many of the same influences as myself, used the "N" word. The idea of a reception with black waiters dressed in plantation outfits was tasteless, but it doesn't necessarily mean she's a racist. At least not in my mind. Is Deen a bigot? I don't know what's in her heart. But I know my dad, brothers and myself have said similar things, and I know our hearts. There was no bigotry intendened and no hate toward any other race. It's time to back off Paula Deen. If your personal choice is to not watch her show, buy her products or her cookbooks, fine. That's your choice, but we need to look deep inside ourselves before casting stones. We can and should denounce racism at every turn, but calling someone racist without knowing the truth shows the same level of ignorance and intolerance. Richard Hensley is editor of Highlands Today.