In the past week, many commenters have rushed to defend fallen Food Network star Paula Deen. But one excuse for her cluelessness about race really takes the cake: that she is "of another time." The assumption that white Southerners of a certain age are unreformed racists living in a secret antebellum fantasy is getting older than egg custard in the noonday sun. Older white Southern folk, so the narrative goes, are dim-witted, Confederate flag-waving bigots incapable of walking a mile in the shoes of their long-oppressed fellow citizens and understanding the pain of their history. And Lord help them, they just can't change - a "lost cause," of sorts. Forget about these condescending stereotypes. Let's consider another perspective: my dad's.
My father and Paula Deen are Southerners of the same generation. She was born in 1947 in Georgia. He was born in 1949 in Mississippi. They both grew up late in the Jim Crow era. Violent racism wasn't all in the past for him - it was still happening during his youth. My dad was in grade school when 14-year-old Emmett Till was beaten to death in Money, Miss. He was in high school when three young civil rights workers, two white and one black, were abducted and killed in Philadelphia, Miss. He was a student at the University of Mississippi - Ole Miss, integrated only a few years before - when Martin Luther King was shot in Memphis. Maybe some white Southerners looked the other way or said the troublemakers had it coming. My dad wasn't one of them. If theories about white Southerners of my dad's generation were true, he would have inherited the racial attitudes prevalent in earlier generations. And my sister and I might have heard language similar to what Paula Deen's children apparently heard from her. I can assure you, we didn't. My dad's parents and grandparents came from generations for whom segregation was embedded into the Southern social structure. His grandmother, my great-grandmother, was born in north Alabama in 1882, less than two decades after the Civil War. In her 95 years, she lived from the beginning of the Jim Crow era through the civil rights era. If anyone could be described as a product of her time, it would be her. Yet my great-grandmother, who grew up without electricity, running water or the automobile, profoundly influenced my dad. With only a grade-school education, she instilled in him a love of reading and a passion for history - which he would go on to teach for nearly four decades. Without the slightest hesitation, she accepted my mother, who grew up in Vietnam and came to America only a few years earlier. We might forgive someone born in the 1880s for coming from a different place - but two or three generations later, the world had changed. My dad came of age at a time when the South could no longer look the other way - the past had finally caught up. He came to terms with it. Let's stop making excuses for Paula Deen or anyone else.