Paula Deen and the N-Word: Mixed Reaction From Corporations, Citizens

Is Deen's poorly executed apology enough to excuse her use of offensive language?

By Manuel McDonnell Smith

Some chefs are fond of the maxim "If you can't stand the heat, then get out of the kitchen." After her confirmed use of racial slurs and mockery, one network has taken the motto to heart and shown celebrity chef Paula Deen the kitchen door. But will Deen's other corporate backers, and the public, also shun the chef's nasty casserole of hate? The response so far has been mixed.

Last week, Food Network moved quickly to announce that it would "not renew Paula Deen's contract when it expires at the end of this month," after she acknowledged using the N-word and considering hiring an all-Black wait staff for her brother's 2007 wedding. The shocking revelations came from testimony Deen delivered under oath in a lawsuit in which a female former employee alleges rampant gender and sexual harassment while employed at Deen's Georgia restaurant.

The celebrity chef had a high-profile opportunity to explain her use of the offensive language on NBC's Today show last Friday, but she decided to duck the appearance—causing visible frustration from hosts Matt Lauer and Al Roker, who said on air, "We consider her a friend ... but she really needs to address this." Shortly after, Deen posted two apologies on YouTube. "I want to apologize to everybody, uh, for the wrong that I've done," Deen utters in one of the videos. "Uh, I want to learn and grow from this."

While some applauded the network's quick response to Deen's offensive behavior, the response from some of her fans and corporate sponsors has been noticeably meeker. Over the weekend, long lines were reported outside of her restaurants, filled with fans ready to forgive her actions. One Black woman, Nicole T. Green, who was first in line to enter one of the locations, told the New York Times, "I get it, believe me, but what's hard for people to understand is that she didn't mean it as racist. It sounds bad, but that's not what's in her heart. She's just from another time."

While the public has been vocal in both support and distaste for Deen after her comments, there's been little to no comment from other companies involved in major endorsement deals with the cook, including Smithfield Foods, Novo Nordisk and Walmart, which carries an array of foods and household items featuring her name. In a statement, Novo Nordisk spokesperson Ken Inchausti seemed to indicate the company's ongoing support for Deen, confirming that she is still a spokesperson for the company's Victoza line of diabetes drugs.

As the debate over Deen's comments continue to range online, and in offices, DiversityInc offers specific guidelines on What NOT to Say to African-American co-workers about race, either inside or outside of the office.

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