Paula Deen: “Please forgive me for the mistakes that I’ve made”

No matter where I go, when I tell people my hometown is Savannah, Ga., one of the first things they ask me is if I have been to Paula Deen’s Lady and Sons southern cuisine restaurant, or to her brother’s Uncle Bubba’s, a seafood eatery.

I always respond “Yes, but … ,” often adding “it’s just fried chicken.”

A friend called me the other night, just to check in. A former coworker, she wanted me to know that she had completed a series of classes as part of her sentence for a DUI offense some months ago. She was proud of the fact that she made it through the punishment and is now (she vows) reformed.

This kind of reformation and redemption reminds me of the years-ago mandatory diversity training that was rolled out across the media landscape of just about every newspaper and television station in the nation — especially those owned by the big companies like Gannett, Knight Ridder, NPR, the New York Times newspapers and The Associated Press.

One media executive, the CEO of a major media company (not Gannett, the company where I worked for more than two decades) admitted to me once that when he formed a diversity committee to plan initiatives around overcoming certain biases in the workplace, he had to call in an expert to help the committee members understand why some of their own biases were preventing them from making progress in establishing diversity benchmarks and standards.

Now comes Paula Deen, the queen of the exaggerated southern drawl and comfort cooking. News this week that Dean and her brother were the subjects of a lawsuit alleging that she used the “N” word and other discriminatory practices knocked Deen off her culinary pedestal. The kitchen maven, who has become a cottage industry with cookbooks, food products and contracts with networks like the Food Network and QVC, immediately went into crisis management to defend herself against charges that she and family members might be racists. Rumors are flying, but the lawsuit’s transcript is out there for all to see. She did not deny using the offensive word.

Friday morning, just as Matt Lauer was getting ready to interview her on the Today Show, Deen dropped back, saying through a spokesperson she was “exhausted.” She later apologized to Lauer and to her fans.

“Please forgive me for the mistakes that I’ve made,” Deen said in a Web video that went viral in seconds. But the fallout of her brand was already underway. The Food Network dropped her like one of her own delicious hot potatoes.

My advice? Just like the model of training for DUIs, political, sports and celebrity offenders who say and do things that are offensive as racist, anti-Semitic, gender-biased, homophobic and age inappropriate and just about anything else for which they stick their biased feet into their mouths, there ought to be a national center for bias reformation and  redemption. All celebs and public officials of a certain status would be required to go there for a month of total immersion in sensitivity training.

A leadership expert once told me that you may not be able to change attitudes but you can change behavior. If someone wants to set up this institute, call me. I’d be happy to help.

As for questions about the fare at the Lady and Sons restaurant, my personal observation includes  these three things:

  • Lines are too long and the Savannah sun is too hot to wait for hours to get in.
  • The food is decent but I’ve had better in Savannah.
  • I took a peep into the kitchen when the door was open with wait staff coming and going. Guess who was doing the cooking back there? African Americans, the very people Paula Deen offended with her use of the “N” word.

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Author of the memoir "Coming Full Circle: From Jim Crow to Journalism." Available for book talks and signings, speaking. (Signed copies available on this site)

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