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Jane Ahlin, Published June 29 2013

Ahlin: Deen might not be racist, but she doesn’t get a pass

Gigi (pronounced “gicky”) insisted that she and her family had no idea Jews were sent to concentration camps; in fact, they knew nothing of Nazi atrocities until World War II was over. She was a teenager in school, her mother, a homemaker, and her father, a dentist in a small German village during the war. Other than young men going off to fight and some inconveniences and shortages, life in their small town hardly changed.

When I got to know Gigi in the mid-1970s, she was nearing her 50th birthday. She’d met her husband while he was part of the post-war American occupation of Germany, a young officer stationed near her hometown. Although not quite 20, she fell hard for the handsome military man. (Unfortunately, he was a heavy smoker who died from lung cancer a few months before I met her. Their marriage had been happy, and she was bereft.)

The conversation about World War II began when Gigi, a new member to an organization I also joined, began telling her story to the rest of us. Her childhood had been idyllic. “Were there no Jews in your village?” someone asked. Gigi didn’t seem to know; neither did she remember rumors about people forced from their businesses or homes.

I believed her. Granted, with our constitutional rights, such ignorance would be suspect in small-town America; however, that the Nazis controlled information for her village seemed plausible to me. I mention that point because years later when talking to a friend married to a Jew whose immediate family had gotten out of Romania less than 24 hours before the Nazis entered the country, I had second thoughts. (Her husband’s grandparents who stayed were shot dead in the street.) My friend was dismissive of Gigi’s claims of innocence. “There’s something called a blind eye,” my friend said. “What she and her family didn’t know, they chose not to know.”

Gigi came to mind as the controversy escalated over Paula Deen’s admitted past use of racist language (the N-word) and enjoyment of race-based jokes. “I can’t myself determine what offends another person,” she said in her deposition. (Note: I give her credit for her openness about having used the N-word.)

Surprised – stunned, really – that the admission of things she considered both long past and unimportant would cause such a ruckus, she’s been apologizing ever since. Unfortunately for her, between lawsuits for sexual and racial harassment against both her brother (who is involved in her restaurant business) and her, which occasioned the deposition, and a video talk with a New York Times reporter from less than a year ago, her apologies haven’t helped her. In the video, she asked a black employee whom she called “very dear” to join her onstage, and said, “I can trust him with my life and color ain’t got a thing to do with it.”

Sadly, she also couldn’t resist making a joke about how black he was, “black as this board” (the black backdrop for the interview). “We can’t see you in front of that dark board!” she said.

She didn’t mean any harm, y’all, and she’s no racist.

In the historical sense of violence and hatred, she isn’t racist. But she is a purveyor of racist behavior adapted for the times, subtler behavior – no longer overt or even particularly ugly in intent – but offensive and insidious in its demeaning effect. Deen wasn’t valuing her employee’s work or the importance of their working relationship or even their personal relationship in the video; she was using him as an exhibit. (Why, one of her best employees is a black man.)

Put into the broader context of societal problems, Deen’s “black” jokes perpetuate racism the way “rape” jokes perpetuate misogyny and “queer” jokes perpetuate homophobia. And we’re paying a terrible price on all fronts.

Sometimes choosing willful ignorance has horrible consequences, as happened with the German people and the Holocaust. Most of the time, however, it’s the Paula Deen variety, turning a blind eye or giving a wink and a nod, ignoring tears in the social fabric we need to hold us together.

Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum.