Paula Deen and America’s Subservience Fantasy

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by Priscilla A. Ocen

The Food Network recently announced that it will not renew the contract of television personality and chef Paula Deen. This announcement followed exposure of deposition testimony in a discrimination lawsuit that she routinely used the “N-word.” In addition, she also acknowledged that she was interested in planning a “really southern plantation” wedding for her brother by hiring an all-black staff that would “pretend to be slaves.” She came up with this idea after attending an event where:

[t]he whole entire waiter staff was middle-aged black men, and they had on beautiful white jackets with a black bow tie. I mean, it was really impressive. That restaurant represented a certain era in America… after the Civil War, during the Civil War, before the Civil War… It was not only black men, it was black women… I would say they were slaves.

Deen’s comments are problematic for a number of reasons. But it would be a mistake to characterize her remarks as a single instance of racism by a misguided or misinformed individual. Rather, Deen’s remarks are representative of a growing kind of “subservience fantasy” of whites who are witnessing significant changes in the demographic and political landscape in the United States. This subservience fantasy corresponds with the increasing anxiety about the growing influence of non-white populations, ushered in by the election of Barak Obama and heightened by the political strength of Latino/as. This type of fantasy allows some whites to bask in the comfort of “the good ole days” when non-whites were invisible to their gaze, except to the extent that they were useful as exploitable and expendable labor.

Subservience Fantasy in Politics and Media

This type of subservience fantasy is evident in political movements and formations such as the Tea Party, which is organized around the idea that they will “take America back.”

Take America back from whom? And, take America back to where? Likely they wish to take America back to an era of white supremacy, where the voices, desires, aspirations and rights of non-whites were marginalized, subordinated, or altogether extinguished.

Perhaps, Deen’s wish is to return America to a place where it was inevitable that the leadership of corporate America, the president of the United States, congressional representatives and judges were, without exception, white men. Tea Party representatives express this fantasy notwithstanding the fact that the vast majority of the representatives in the U.S. government and the heads of major corporations remain largely white and male.

They frame any gains of historically excluded communities or race conscious efforts to combat racial discrimination as “reverse racism.” The Tea Party and others of its ilk balk at the idea of what Luke Harris calls the “diminished overrepresentation” of whites at all levels of political and economic life in America.

The subservience fantasy is not, however, limited to politics. Recently, there has been a spate of films and television programs centered on blacks and Latino/as as the maid or butler, including The Butler and the Help as examples of this phenomenon.

In this genre of film and television, the black or brown domestic is quiet, demure and long suffering. In this world, racial reform is slow, but inevitable if oppressed people are patient enough to wait for a change of heart of from well-meaning whites. These fantasies position whites as the protagonists of the story of civil rights, paternalistically taking up the cause of black freedom. In these narratives, things weren’t and aren’t so bad for people of color.

Subservience Fantasy, Erasure of History and the Recent Supreme Court Rulings

Subservience fantasies like those expressed by Deen and embodied by various politicians and media programs are harmful for a variety of reasons. For those immersed in the subservience fantasy, theirs is a softer, kinder, gentler racism. It relies on a vision of history that erases the virulence of state-sponsored and privately enforced racial discrimination. This fantasy obscures the terror under which people of color lived and the systematic way that people of color were excluded from all facets of society.

These representations conveniently omit the sexual and physical violence that black and brown domestics encountered and still experience in their workplaces, the rampant wage theft, the blood that was shed for freedom in the face of violent white repression and the sustained organizing by everyday people impatiently seeking justice. The racial fantasy embraced by Paula Deen and others makes racial discrimination out to be a thing of the past, with no present day effects such as mass incarceration.

This diluted version of the history of racial exclusion in the United States makes remedies to correct discrimination, like the Voting Rights Act or affirmative action, seem like political overreach. Recently, in Shelby Country v. Holder, the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that enabled federal oversight of voting practices in states with a history of discriminatory voting practices. The Court reached this decision after contending that racial discrimination in voting is largely a thing of the past, notwithstanding all of the attempts by legislators in the South to reduce voter turnout in communities of color through voter identification laws and the elimination of early voting. Most strikingly, during oral arguments, Justice Antonin Scalia characterized the protections offered by the VRA as “racial entitlements,” echoing the idea that federal anti-discrimination efforts unjustly burden whites; that history and current practice do not justify robust federal efforts to ensure that communities of color enjoy equal access to the franchise.

Moreover, this subservience fantasy frames whites as the victims of racial sensitivity run amok. According to this view, whites have been deprived of their accustomed “way of life,” sacrificed to political correctness. This way of life includes the ability to say racist remarks and to engage in racially insensitive behavior. When called on racism and racial insensitivity, those who are victims are framed as the perpetrators of racism by calling attention to racism or are accused of infringing on the First Amendment rights whites. In other words, the subservience fantasy facilitates the transition from social justice to “reverse racism.” Reverse racism, in turn, allows for easy victories for whites in affirmative action and employment discrimination cases, while people of color claiming discrimination encounter an increasingly hostile judiciary.

The subservience fantasy is more than a notion. It’s bigger than Paula Deen, a political party or a television show. It is a nightmare for communities seeking equity and justice. It silences the ability to fully discuss race and racial inequality and narrows the types of images and representations of communities of color that are seen in film and on television. This fantasy stunts our ability to imagine and describe a future with racial justice at the core.

To move beyond the fantasy, we must have a broader and more complicated view of the reality of race in this country, its history and how it is represented.

Priscilla A. Ocen Associate Professor of Law at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles. You can follow her on twitter @blactivist

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