Quite a week.
Paula Deen brings the “N” word into national discourse, and the Supreme Court strikes down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act.
A day after this stunning reversal in our march toward civil rights, the Defense of Marriage Act is over turned and marriage equality is affirmed.
Hard to make sense of it all.
Two lessons I’ve taken from this week.
The first lesson is about our consumer culture and the role of brands. Paula Deen has been a train wreck this week because she doesn’t understand the difference between a celebrity and a brand. She thinks she’s a celebrity. She’s wrong. The Paula Deen brand is a fantasy of southern warmth and graciousness based around comfort food. It’s a fantasy world where racism (and diabetes) don’t exist. The first blow to the fantasy was her admission that she is in fact diabetic. The uproar over that should have been her first clue to herself as a brand. Consumers project their hopes and aspirations onto a brand – we all wanted to believe we could eat Paula’s food without consequence. When you rip that dream away from us, we get angry.
We also don’t want moral complexity from our brands. When asked under oath is she’d ever used the “N” word, she replied: “Of course.” The worst possible answer – albeit true and authentic to her culture and upbringing. Two sticks of butter we can take, but please don’t serve us the reality of race relations in America. No one has an appetite for that!
Failing to understand brand dynamics, her horrendous defense this week has only made the problem worse, and her brand has become aligned with Mel Gibson, Michael Richards and many others. The Food Network and Smithfield Foods, fully understanding brand dynamics, have run as quickly as they could from her.
The second lesson, from both Paula and from the Prop 8 battle, is about our need to simplify and reduce people to a single label – to treat each other as brands instead of people. Labeling Paula Deen a racist makes all of us feel better about our own degrees of racism – we can point to “it” over there as if none of “it” was also inside of us. When we divide the world up that way, and group people as racist, homophobic, sexist, etc, we reduce them to something more like brands than like the people they truly are. We deprive them of the ability to be complex, to grow, and to change. Even the redemption narrative, so common in our culture, requires a bipolar theory of life: you were one thing, now you’re redeemed and you’ve become its opposite.
This point came home to me reading about a family in California that had been very involved in the fight in favor of Proposition 8, banning gay marriage. From the LA Times:
Wendy Montgomery, 37, of Bakersfield and her husband supported Proposition 8 in 2008 but changed their position “180 degrees” after they learned their 13-year-old son was gay a year and a half ago. Montgomery, a practicing Mormon, said she voted for the measure and spent a couple of days canvassing and working on a phone bank for it.
“We’re Mormon. The church asked us to participate in Prop. 8, and we did, pretty much unthinking,” she said.
When her son came out, he told his parents he had at first planned never to tell them he was gay, because he thought they hated gay people because they had supported Proposition 8.
I suspect in 2008 most of us would have described the Montgomery’s as homophobes and bigots. But what seems so clear to me is that they are in fact thoughtful loving people who work very hard to incorporate their faith with the reality of everyday life. They are complex people capable of growth and change, exactly the sort of people I’d like to have in my life.
If we’re to stay on a path toward justice, we need to create a world where Paula Deen and the Montgomery’s are real in the public discourse as full people, not simply as labels, and where their own personal growth is supported and acknowledged, along with our own.
So from this week I’m going to try to do better avoiding labels and embracing the complexity of my fellow humans.
And maybe a little less butter…………..