The Paula Deen Scandal: White Racial Framing in Action

Professor Tricia Rose of Brown University has an interesting and savvy op-ed piece on the Paula Deen racism scandal. She makes this key set of points:

With each heartfelt tearful statement, Deen seems completely uninterested in the broader contexts of her comments, missing ample opportunities to address the reality of racism today both in the form of cultural and social interactions, but even more powerfully by policies and actions.

I heard her speak very little about the extraordinary injuries and injustices black people face, I have not heard her show alliance with those who fight racism nor show solidarity with or compassion for black people based on the profound impact racism has on their lives.

I grew up in similar circumstances to those of Deen, the assertively and comprehensively Jim Crow South. That is a central part of that “broader context” of her comments. Virtually all white southerners (and most in the North too) then grew up with, and had drilled into them, a very aggressive version of the white racist framing of society—replete with many thousands (and I do mean thousands, empirically speaking) of references by older whites, parents and others, to black southerners of all ages and conditions as N-words. Virtually all young white southerners used that word, as they unreflectively mimicked parents and peers. And a dozen other antiblack words.

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The even more important point missed in almost all discussion I have seen of Deen is that the overtly and brutally racist language of the southern (and northern) white racial frame was not isolated, for it was (and still is) connected to many dozens of antiblack and other racist stereotypes, ideas, narratives, images, interpretations, and inclinations to discriminate. It has been now for nearly four centuries.

The real issue is this white racial frame, this white worldview, not just one major racist word, or two. As a white person drilled in the white racial frame, you do not just give up using one word (and often just in public, too) and, suddenly, become a virtuous non-racist. You have to work constantly and aggressively to deframe and reframe away from that dominant white racial frame in the antiracist direction–and that takes much effort. And that effort is never finished over any white lifetime.

So, where is the public discussion of this broad and deep white way of looking at society, a framing that in some version is the backbone perspective for most white Americans today–and most especially in many of the racist performances of a great many prominent and not-so-prominent white conservatives today.

Central to the common white defensiveness on these issues is the heart of that centuries-old white racial frame – the sense that white people are the most virtuous, civilized, and intelligent Americans. Yet these “virtuous” whites created systems of racial oppression in the form of 246 years of slavery and nearly 100 years of Jim Crow that rival the worst systems of oppression created over long centuries of world history. And widespread contemporary racial discrimination as well.

In her piece Professor Rose raises a very good question about why Deen does not just come out and take an anti-racist stand. In my view that would be one that accents and condemns the current discriminatory treatment African Americans and other people of color still receive in this country–and emphasizes the need for this country’s white leadership to aggressively confront their own racism and that imbedded across the institutions of this still racist society.

That seems an elementary response, at least looking from outside the dominant white racial frame critically–for example, from the perspective of those people of color oppressed by it for so long.


  1. anaisninja

    I think the reason Paula Deen failed to look at the larger context is because she may not even be aware that it exists. That’s not to say she’s not responsible to try to seek it out. As a white female pushing 50 myself who, although a Canadian, was raised in the US from the age of 3, I can say that because white Americans historically haven’t HAD to face the issue of race and racism in America, most of us don’t. One has to first become mindful of the problem of embedded institutional racism. So that means most whites who don’t attend a 4-year college won’t even be exposed to the idea. Then, one must voluntarily make the effort to start to educate oneself, begin to challenge one’s biases and perceptions of what one believes to be reality, and then continuously put oneself in the position of re-learning how to be human – in relation to what they’ve been taught and absorbed, and to non-whites.

    That takes more motivation than many (most?) white Americans have, sadly. It takes humility, a willingness to learn, and to not only recognize one’s privilege but to give it up. One has to make a conscious decision to be part of the solution, even if one continues to make unconscious mistakes over and over. Moreover, one must be willing to make mistakes, be called out for them, see them (I mean, really SEE them) and then be humble enough to learn from them. This takes years and years of choosing to put oneself in an uncomfortable position. Because we whites don’t walk out of our homes into that uncomfortable position every day like people of color in America do, most of us choose (either consciously or unconsciously) to take the path of least resistance. However, especially with the access provided by the internet these days, that is no excuse. There is no longer any excuse to look at the broader context; anyone who does is choosing ignorance over enlightenment. Any white American who does not make the effort to continuously confront their racism and retrain themselves, with the help of others (and there are many opportunities to do so – annual White Privilege Conference, etc.) can no longer claim ignorance or unawareness and, in effect, is choosing to be part of the problem.

    For me, the problem isn’t that Paula Deen used the slur; that is just a symptom of the problem. The problem for me is that she didn’t even try to learn from the experience of being caught doing so. Personally, I don’t know if she’s capable of this; however, many of the white Americans who are going on the defensive and reacting so unconsciously are capable of this and should be doing more to challenge their own learned biases and privilege. The opportunities are out there. Will we take advantage of them?

  2. Joe Author

    Well said. There are many ways to learn about the realities of US racism and our racist history and foundations. Studied ignorance does begin with our parents and peers, but a critical perspective on life should lead one to, as they say, ‘question authority.’ But even supreme court justices, like Scalia, constantly speak and think out of the white racist framing of society, with impunity and arrogance — as when he recently called black efforts to vote without racial barriers, after hundreds of years of extreme repression, “entitlements” seeking. The center of the white racial frame is the constant white arrogance that we are “right.”


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