by Crystal Hayes and Olivia Reeser–TheGrio.com
Dear Paula Deen,
We write this open letter to you today as a Black and a White woman living in the south to express our shared deep pain, disbelief, and mixed reactions to your admitted use of racial slurs and all that has happened since.
We’re also professional social workers committed to anti-racism education, who believe in the deep and beautiful transformational power of racial healing and reconciliation.
We want to say up front that we would love to forgive you for using the N word — not that you need or want our forgiveness.
We applaud your courage and respect your decision to disclose circumstances in which you have used language that is widely considered offensive.
We know that this era of “political correctness” makes it extremely difficult for all of us to grow and learn when we’re not allowed to be messy complicated human beings in a culture that has very little tolerance for contradictions. Our own President, despite is unique position, can’t talk about race without it being used a political weapon against him.
We also know from personal experiences how hard it is to bring up issues of race or share our anxieties about it with one another without it triggering a lot of pain and distrust.
We get it. That said, we want to be perfectly clear with you that what most people are angry and hurt about is not that you used the N word earlier in your life — we can get over that. What’s harder to get over is your unwillingness to take responsibility for it. Despite your visible agony, you appear to be in agony only for yourself, while overlooking the broader context and consequences of your comments, particularly as they relate to systemic racism and your unexamined white privilege.
You also don’t have to keep reminding us that you are a “good person.” We believe you. This is why we don’t buy it when you say, “I is what I is and I am not changing.” Didn’t you once suffer from the debilitating mental illness of agoraphobia? We admire that you didn’t give in and give up to mental illness. You got help and healed.
Racism is debilitating too, and it won’t go away or get better without a willingness to face it. If you are not willing to change, we must all assume that you are unwilling to look at the workplace racism for which you are accused.
We must also assume that you are unwilling to ensure that you provide the best working conditions possible, free from racist and sexist practices.
We hope this is not true. You have access to enormous resources and power that most do not. You can use your access to transform culture.
To be honest, we write to you because we believe that you are a “good person.” As Rev. Jesse Jackson said, you are not to blame for racial intolerance.
However, as two women with southern roots too, one born and educated in a rural southern community, we are troubled with the perceptions you have presented to the world that to be southern is to be racist.
It’s more complicated than that.
What makes people racist is their unwillingness to acknowledge it in the first place combined with an unwillingness to take steps to change — exactly what you keep doing.
We understand the environment in which you were raised. Nevertheless, we’re offended that you fail to use this painful moment of public embarrassment as a powerful opportunity to remind the world that intention and impact are not mutually exclusive — good people can be racist too. Furthermore, having Black “friends” doesn’t make you racially pure or immune from racist tendencies. We know because of the anti-racism work we do as social workers that no one can claim to be racially pure or free from racism in society entrenched in a history of white supremacy.
The truth is, we’ve all internalized racism. Having Black friends is no substitution for actively engaging in anti-racist work. Loving Black people doesn’t make you any less racist than someone who does not.
You can’t wash off racism with a few Black friends like a bar of soap. To stay clean and free from the filth and grime of a polluted culture, we must bathe every day, right? Doing anti-racism work is the same thing. It takes a persistent committed effort and intention every day of our lives to clean off the dirt and grime of a culture polluted by a legacy of racist policies, beliefs, and practices.
When you’re entertained by the idea of a plantation style southern wedding with an all Black wait-staff, it glorifies the terrible Holocaust of African slavery. It also tells us that you have a long way to go in unlearning racism, but you can begin now.
We know this won’t be easy, so we’re offering you our support. We’ve included in this letter a few ideas that we hope will help you shift this conversation away from interpersonal racism and all of your millions in losses in endorsement deals to the work of dismantling structural oppression.
More than anything else, we hope to help you use this painful experience to teach the world about how normalized racial discrimination is in our culture and that the work of dismantling racism is bigger than who can and cannot use the N word.
You can remind the world that “good white people” can be racist too, and can change if there’s a willingness to deal with what it means to benefit from a system of unearned white privileges to the detriment of people of color.
Here are a few suggestions for moving forward that we hope will help broaden our conversations and start the healing process:
Southern women are brave, strong, and authentic, so stop making excuses and looking for the world to rescue you. Stop playing the victim. Stop scapegoating your past, environment, and age, and take responsibility for your comments.
In social work social justice education we learn that the first step to anti-racism work is coming to terms with our own internalized biases and privileges. We all have them, so stop making excuses for yours. You can’t stop something you’re unwilling to see. Take a social justice class or an anti-racism training.
Read a book (we recommend Audre Lorde’s “Sister Outsider” or anything written by bell hooks for starters). Do the work to understand your own internalized racism and begin the long painful journey of unlearning racism. It’s never too late.
Stop using your Black friends as a shield. Do the hard work of reaching out to the community you have offended. Don’t just ask for forgiveness, but demonstrate through action that you understand the power of your comments by eliminating racism and sexism and all forms of oppression within your empire by evaluating your business practices and policies through a race equity lens.
Use your powerful media platform and become a meaningful white ally. Support a call to action to end racial inequality in our culture. Become an anti-racist activist. Remind the world that racism is a systemic institutionalized issue that cannot be fixed by simply going after people who use racist offensive language. You can begin by advocating for raising the minimum wage and improving the overall working conditions for people in the service and food industries, particularly in your own restaurants and businesses.
Stop cashing out on a legacy that marginalizes and alienates the very people who helped to build it—Black southern women dating back to slavery—without giving credit and acknowledgment to them. Use your enormous brand to remind the world how Black women in the south helped to create the culture and foods for which you are now famous.
Give back to them by giving them credit and opening doors of opportunities. Stand up and fight racist sexist systems, policies, and practices the exclude them and benefit you.
This list is by no means exhaustive, but we feel it’s a good start and very doable.
Finally, we’re calling on you as southerners, as women, and as social workers and advocates to please stop acting like the victim and stand up for all of us. Stop trying to emotionally manipulate us with your tears and face the truth about your comments and actions. Use your enormous gifts and privileges to promote racial justice. Work to change hearts and minds. Most of all, change the practices that perpetuate inequity in our culture; begin in your own heart and work.
We live in a world with enough judgment and contempt for one another. We hope our tough love message to you doesn’t add to that, but helps to transform this conversation and debate so that we’re all the better for it.
In forgiveness, hope, and love,
Crystal and Olivia
Crystal Hayes is a social work scholar, educator, and activist. Crystal can be reached via Twitter @motherjustice. Olivia Reeser is a Master of Social Work Candidate and can be reached via Twitter @socialjusticeagent.
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