Walk on The Wildside: Hernandez, Deen, Paulette, and Orcas

Lives wasted. Photo by Patriotworld.
Lives wasted. Photo by Patriotworld.

Author’s Note: This is not safe for work. 

I’m not a preacher, a politician, or an executive. I don’t say all the right things. It definitely applies here.

Let’s start with Aaron Hernandez’s arrest on first-degree murder chargers? Do you really need to read a Hallmark card from a people-pleasing columnist who dresses in a suit and writes (in boxers) to tell you the obvious?

We should all pray for the Lloyd family for their loss. We should hope that if Hernandez is found guilty that justice is served. And we should praise the New England Patriots organization for taking a tough stance on their former player regardless of the outcome of the trial because his numerous brushes with the law were a distraction and bad influence for the team.

Did you really need me to write all that? Would you have not felt that way if Suit Man didn’t say it? Do you need instructions on how to live like a human being? Does it make you feel better?

It doesn’t do jack for me, but we all know folks who need some operating instructions. While it depresses me that this is the case, I’m sure there are plenty of people who see my ignorance on display in other aspects of life and grow more despondent.

I guess we’re all in the same boat.

The most selfish reason I’m sad about Hernandez is that we’re watching a human being put his special talent in jeopardy. Hernandez has the skills to lead the NFL in receiving as a tight end. If the conditions were right for him to get fed the ball as the primary option in New England, he could have had 100-plus receptions, 1200-plus yards, and 10-plus touchdowns.

Every football man with a clue that I’ve read, listened to, or interviewed loved Rob Gronkowski, but they lit up when talking about what Hernandez brought to the Patriots. Most prominent among them were Greg Cosell and Bill Parcells. Other than Hernandez, I’ve never seen a tight end who could play running back and get the perimeter, run through a linebacker or safety, get separation against a press corner, and then juke him to jelly after the catch.

One of the most beautiful things to witness in life is to watch a human being perform at his best. It’s why wasted talent angers me. I’m not including the person with great talent who opts not to use it because he or she doesn’t love the field where this talent is applied. That’s a reasonable choice.

There’s still an arraignment ahead for Hernandez and likely a trial. There’s a lot more to learn about the Lloyd murder and Hernandez’s involvement. But there’s another thing tangential to this case that saddens me and it got me thinking of a variety of seemingly disparate news items that share a common link .

We’re going to see another tatted-up professional football player of color on camera 24/7 about something that has nothing to do with the NFL or the color of his skin, but many in this country will make it so. You don’t think so? You’re probably seeing things from a guileless and ignorant perspective.

We're ready to go deeper than the Cliff's Notes when it comes to the race discussion. Photo by Jen Waller.
We’re ready to go deeper than the Cliff’s Notes when it comes to the race discussion. Photo by Jen Waller.

Let’s talk Paula Deen.

I’ve lived in Georgia for 33 years. I’ve been to Savannah numerous times. I grew up in Atlanta while it was transforming from a southern city to a northern city located in the south. It hasn’t completed the transition just yet, but just know that if you think you’ve been to the south because you’ve visited Atlanta then I need to tell you that what you got was the Cliff’s Notes version with key pages torn out.

But this isn’t just about the south. I remember the first time I heard the word nigger and it wasn’t from some stars and bars-waving, tobacco-chewing, southern Baptist. It was from a Genesse-drinking, stars and stripes-waving  navy veteran, and blue-collar Jew from Cleveland, Ohio.

In fact, I heard the word nigger a lot more in Cleveland, Ohio before I was 10 years-old than I did my next 10 years in Atlanta. Hell, take some areas of Pennsylvania, New York, or Boston and have the people trade clothes and accents with your favorite, hateful southern stereotypes and you’d never be able to tell them apart.

We could have a game show. Dick Clark would have been the perfect host. 

This scene from Gran Torino was as true to life of my experience growing up in the north as anything I’ve ever read or seen in fiction or film [Idiot-Proof Warning: This scene is not safe for work viewing] 

This kind of racism is not a regional thing. But there is a desire by many to always point to the south as the only place in our country where we have a race problem. If that’s what you think, you don’t truly know a person of color or you’re walking around with your hands shielding your eyes.

“The difference between the north and the south,” as one of my teachers told me over 25 years ago, “is that you can see the ignorance and hatred coming from a greater distance. I’d rather live where I can see my enemies coming.”

I didn’t want to believe him, but my time in the south has taught me that this region is often guileless about racism. Deen’s description of her great-grandfather’s reaction to his slaves being set free and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ analysis of the situation is spot-on:

Perhaps it expects that they will be savvy enough to not propose Sambo burgers or plantation themed weddings. But this is an embarrassment at airs, not the actual truth. When you watch the video above, note the people cheering and laughing. For those without video, here is what was said:

“Between the death of his son and losing all the workers, he went out into his barn and shot himself because he couldn’t deal with those kind of changes,” Deen said at a New York Times event. Deen, owner of a restaurant empire, asserted the owner-slave relationship was more kinship than cruelty

“Back then, black folk were such an integral part of our lives,” said Deen. “They were like our family, and for that reason we didn’t see ourselves as prejudiced.”

 She also called up an employee to join her onstage, noting that Hollis Johnson was “as black as this board” — pointing to the dark backdrop behind her. “We can’t see you standing in front of that dark board!” Deen quipped, drawing laughter from the audience.

 At the same event, Deen at one point described race relations in the South as “pretty good.” “We’re all prejudiced against one thing or another,” she added. “I think black people feel the same prejudice that white people feel.”

Here is everything from Civil War hokum to black friend apologia to blatant racism. And people at a New York Times event are laughing along with it.

This morning, I showed this video to my wife. My wife is dark-skinned. My wife is from Chicago by way of Covington, Tennessee. The remark sent her right back to childhood. I suspect that the laughter in the crowd was a mix of discomfort, shock and ignorance. The ignorance is willful. We know what we want to know, and forget what discomfits us.

There is a secret at the core of our nation. And those who dare expose it must be condemned, must be shamed, must be driven from polite society. But the truth stalks us like bad credit. Paula Deen knows who you were last summer. And the summer before that.

Such a tough subject. Deen’s behavior infuriates me, but I don’t think the response by her employers is the best one for our society. I agree with Al Sharpton, Bill Maher, and Pastor Gregory Tyson, Deen should not have been fired from her TV jobs for her remarks.

Most corporations with an employee who displays this behavior are sent to sensitivity training. I think Deen should have been offered the same opportunity as a condition for employment. Suspend her, require her to undergo training, and give her an opportunity to develop greater understanding about the world rather than her insulated ideas about people of color.

Don’t take her job. Years ago, this might have been the brave thing for a corporation to do. Now, I think it’s the easiest.

[Updated Thought]: Now that I’ve seen the full extent of the charges against Deen and her brother, I’m more ambivalent about the reaction of her media employers.

Paula Deen, while planning her brother’s wedding in 2007, was asked what look the wedding should have.  She replied, “I want a true southern plantation-style wedding.” When asked what type of uniforms the servers should wear, Paula stated, “well what I would really like is a bunch of little n*ggers to wear long-sleeve white shirts, black shorts and black bow ties, you know in the Shirley Temple days, they used to tap dance around;

Black staff had to use the back entrance to enter and leave restaurant;

Black staff could only use one bathroom;

Black staff couldn’t work the front of the restaurants;

Brother Bubba stated his wishes: “ I wish I could put all those n*ggers in the kitchen on a boat to Africa”;

Bubba asked a black driver and security guard “don’t you wish you could rub all the black off you and be like me? You just look dirty; I bet you wish you could.” The guy told Bubba he was fine as is;

Bubba on President Obama: they should send him to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, so he could n*gger-rig it;

He shook an employee (Black again) and said” F your civil rights…you work for me and my sister Paula Deen;

Paula’s son Jaime’s best friend managed the Lady & Sons restaurant. He threatened to fire all the ‘Monkeys’ in the kitchen. When Paula found out…she slapped him on the wrist and suggested that the employee visited Paula’s $13,000,000 mansion so he felt special and could be massaged.
– See more at: http://www.blacklegalissues.com/Article_Details.aspx?artclid=7dfdbe0461#sthash.aXj8rwFV.dpuf

If I heard that an employee engaged in this type of behavior, he would have been subject to far more discipline and training than what Deen did with her employees because I know that the entire company would be liable for this behavior if I didn’t. More over, preventing this behavior in the future for the benefit of employees and customers is the most important thing.

However, it doesn’t change my perspective that some of this behavior can have been handled in a more proactive constructive way before they evolve into situations like these where ignorance is not only unchecked but encouraged. If Bubba Deen’s behavior is truly a reflection of Paula Deen’s viewpoint then she deserved her firing – especially if their rules violated the civil rights employees.

Still, there an aspect of cowardice with how our society has gotten to a point where we have a much more open environment to address the subtlety of these issues but we still overreact with broad strokes. It’s one of the things that liberals are the most guilty of doing and I think corporations succumb to this pressure because it’s about short-term revenue.

It also further alienates the person for his or her ignorance when we need to embrace them and give them a chance to learn things they truly didn’t realize.

Ignorance is the root of hate, but one can be ignorant and have good intentions. But there’s so much shame with the word “racist” that we fail to address the bigger problem ahead for our society: How to alleviate the pervasive ignorance of racism without shaming them as hateful people.

It’s an ingrained problem with our society and where the north and south may differ is that there seems to be more guileless racism down here.

Two years ago my wife, a dark-skinned woman whom Jene Bramel has nicknamed “Paulette” – worked for a global firm with branches in Athens and another in Gainesville. She had this conversation during a business lunch with colleagues from both branches – both white women. “B” is the white woman from Gainesville who never met my wife. “A” is my wife’s white co-worker from Athens. “C” is another black woman mentioned during the conversation:

B (Gainesville employee speaking to my wife): After speaking with you on the phone I was surprised when A told me you were black because you sounded like you were white. We could tell you were raised right. I mean really there are black people and there are niggers.

P (My wife): I completely agree with you and in the spirit of team alignment, let me give you some advice. Do not ever in life ever make that statement to another black person, ever. You are correct about my upbringing, which is why I have not kicked your ass.

B (Slack-jawed): What do you mean?  I’m just saying you and C (another black employee) are different.

P: No. Your perception of black people is what’s different. C and I are normal black people. Because you don’t know that, you’re the only nigger at this table. 

B: What? I’m white . . .

P: Nigger means ignorant, love.

B: I’m gonna look that up (looking it up on her iPhone) . . . Damn, it does!

P: It’s ok, I’m still going to have lunch with you even though you’re a nigger, because you’re different.

These women weren’t hateful; they were ignorant. And as much as I’d like to label them as such, they aren’t the gap-toothed, redneck, southern stereotypes, either. I’ve had similar conversations about the word nigger with people equally ignorant as these Georgians and they lived in Cleveland, Denver, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston.

Unfortunately, when these guileless racists see people of color who they can relate to, they see them as exceptions to the subconscious rules that they have learned from mass media and older generations of family and friends – people who had limited or no exposure to black people. If they had regular interactions it wasn’t  beyond the accepted social interactions of the Pre Civil Rights Era where it was dangerous for most people of color to act anything less than subservient around white people for fear of the impunity with which white people could respond.

If you’re a minority in the U.S., odds are you’ve had to develop a level of awareness of how to deal with this ignorance. It becomes attuned to a degree where you can sense an awkward, inappropriate, or even dangerous situation brewing. If you’re not a person of color; a Jew or Muslim; or a homosexual, then it’s probably more difficult to understand because you didn’t have to read the subtleties of this behavior and respond. Of course, if you were raised with an alcoholic, you probably learned to read the signs of something bad brewing. It’s a similar thing.

White people have this danger-response mechanism, but I think our white-majority society has warped the collective mechanism. My wife often  jokes that white society is often so out of tune with the danger-response mechanism that it extends to how they approach wild animals – especially those in zoos and aquariums. She shares a story about a trip to Sea World:

I took Chandler and her friend to see Shamu. One of the tricks featured the whale swimming around the pool for a lap or two and then emerged from the water and landed on a platform near the front row. He then “smiled at the audience.” He did that once and then the trainer tried to get Shamu to go to the next trick. Shamu jumped into the water and swam off. The trainer joked that Shamu wanted the trainer to chase him. The trainer tried to corral the Shamu and the killer whale continued to swim away from him and hop back on the platform and smile while slapping his tail into the water.

The first time it happened, I thought it was part of the show. The second time, the trainer looked a little bit concerned. The third time, Shamu jumped into the water the opposite direction of the trainer and it was clear he was not listening to the trainer at all.

I looked at the girls and said, “Shamu is not doing okay today. It’s time to go.” We were sitting in the front row and I was not in the mood to have a killer whale that was off his medication land on my head because he was tired of his trainer. When I dragged the kids out of there, I looked behind me and noticed two other black couples had done the exact same thing. We exchanged a nod of acknowledgement kept it moving.

What we’ve since learned about Orcas in captivity is that it’s a lot like being locked up in a Supermax prison. They go crazy.

But race has often warped everyone’s danger-response mechanism. Just as some white people see a black teen in baggy jeans and an over-sized t-shirt and sense danger, my wife gets on edge when she sees a white teen in an Abercrombie t-shirt carrying a backpack.

It’s white kids from privileged backgrounds that make me nervous! If a black kid has an anger problem and his mom pisses him off, he’s probably going after his momma. If a white kid with an anger problem has his momma piss him off, he blows up a school or a movie theater!

My wife and daughter encountered three white kids dressed like this at the mall a couple of years ago as they all entered an elevator. One of the kids was holding a backpack with both hands in front of him. Without saying a word, my wife and daughter got off the elevator before the doors closed and left the mall. Is this any different from the white woman who suddenly locks her car door in the parking lot of a grocery store after she sees a black teen walking across her path?

What about caramel-skinned NFL player with tattoos like Colin Kaepernick? I have to think the Hernandez trial will reinforce the guileless ignorance that the 49ers QB was on the receiving end of this summer.

I was that white boy. She was that black girl. For reasons good, bad, or otherwise, we’re all warped by race in this country. The question is how do we have the conversation without hatred or shame?

The good thing is that more and more of us are managing to do so.

7 responses to “Walk on The Wildside: Hernandez, Deen, Paulette, and Orcas”

  1. Wonderful post, Matt. Corporations are not interested in furthering any discussion on anything remotely controversial, at least when it comes to spokespeople. I agree that Deen should have been offered something like sensitivity training, but corporations are mostly spineless and fear any sort of backlash.
    As for the North vs South thing, I spent my first 21 years in Central New York, and my next 20 in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. I heard more hateful, racist speech in Central New York than the other three states combined.

  2. I’m sorry Matt as a white kid growin up in a borderline town(town right next to another w peeps of a diff color) and growing up and living amongst all types of colors I have only experienced reverse racisim a million times. Name calling mother jokes getting jumped by more than one assailant was an everyday thing for us( my coalition of varied races) who did not fit in w the tighty whitiee or the brothas or the many diff latinos. Even now to this day as I reside in a predominantly black n latino town still deal w some of these things. I’m not saying whites are any better cuz the up the hill Jewish n wasp losers who decided to also join the fun n games cuz my bday parties weren’t flashy enough or my clothes or sneakers ect. Point is lots of minorities have attitudes like we should bow down or get the shit kicked outta ya or even worse cuz they are from the hood. It’s bullshit. I’m sick n tired of hearing oh they got it so hard n oh it’s someone elses fault. I’ve been there. Only diff is most white kids start screwing up their mommies n daddies bail em out or stay on em. Half the kids I graduated w were stick up kids in training or the next CEOs in waspville or landscaper of the year. Every side sucks. Most of us r lucky in life to find a few gems from each race n pal around with. I’m tired of the looks when some Tex mex crosses the street or brotha takin forever to cross the fuckin crosswalk cuz their cuzin is a king blood or crip. I see it every day in jersey bro. Every race sux n gas good n bad points. Everyone needs to stop botching bout equality cuz if u ain’t from a big city n ur down has a large population of each I guarantee there’s a group like mine was, white black Spanish Korean vietnamese, Jew, Chinese, n we got along every day cuz we called eachother niggers spics white boys chinks ect n fuckin laughed about it for hours. We had eachothers back regardless of race creed color religeon handicapp we fought cried laughed and had great times a big salad bowl of races getting along perfectly. In Essex county nj we made it work. We banded together against the masses. We fought other whites blacks and latinos on a daily basis. Anyway I’m done w the race shit it’s only cuz most peeps live amongst their own. Not used to the others I guess. I’m rasist as we would say. Equal oppertunitey rasists n hated everyone n everything unless u were copping from us or were cool w us. Lol. Be easy everyone. The race thing never goin away so just get used to it.

  3. Another well written thought provoking article. Love how your wife gets right to the chase and doesn’t dance in the hole or take it to the corner store…


  4. Excellent piece, Matt. I would only disagree regarding the Hernandez case in that no one
    can legitimately blame anything or anybody else for the act of cold-bloodedly executing
    another human being(s?).

    IF, I repeat, IF Hernandez is guilty, forget about versatility, Bill parcells and the tight end shovel pass: they become totally irrelevant. We’re talking Evil here. You don’t say, well gee, that guy
    Mengele sure was brainy; too bad he was a mass murderer. No, true Evil is transcendent;
    this is the tragedy of existence.

    If Hernandez did what he is being accused of, it’s not football’s fault, it’s not the NFL’s fault,
    it’s not the money, or the father (our dad died when we were very young and we never went out and killed anybody.) In fact, football gave to give Aaron Hernandez unimaginable advantages and rewards. If he didn’t like it, he should have quit and gotten a job.

  5. Great work Matt. I appreciate you writing this deeply personal account. What I’d add is simply this. Racism isn’t just any one thing. Sometimes it’s ignorance. Other times less so. Sometimes it’s hatred. Other times it’s the utterly dispassionate exercise of power and privilege over others.

    Allow me to suggest the following. If you want to understand racism in the US in a deeper way, beyond just the interpersonal dynamics of hatred or ignorance I’d recommend adding two outstanding books to your pile.

    1. “How Race Survived US History,” by David Roediger

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JORCWWOkyCk (5+ min. clip from talk at Ohio State),

    http://books.google.com/books/about/How_Race_Survived_Us_History.html?id=4cwWAQAAIAAJ (link to book)

    2. “Unequal Freedom: How Race and Gender Shaped American Citizenship and Labor,” by Evelyn Nakano Glenn,

    http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674013728 (link to book),

    http://julierenszer.blogspot.com/2008/09/unequal-freedom-by-evelyn-nakano-glenn.html (link to brief synopsis)

    • Thank you for providing additional reading material. Racism is an amalgamation of things. I just profiled one of several dynamics at play. Looking forward to reading more.


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