Being neither a Southerner nor a rider, I'm not about to get on any preachy high horse about the Paula Deen debacle. I admit to being mystified, though, how an extremely savvy and wealthy businesswoman, no matter how distraught she might feel or what part of the country she comes from, could drop a grammatical mega-turd like "I'm is what I'm is." But even on that I could be off base; maybe there are Southern patois I'm not familiar with.
Indeed, over lunch I asked two close friends, one Texan and the other Mississippian—who still sport genuine drawls—about the controversy and neither seem disposed to get too excited about Deen's use of the N-word, although I can't imagine them ever using it. The reaction seemed to be a brief, embarrassed pause, along the lines of "it happens."
After spending my entire professional life in Chicago, among many African American colleagues, a couple explained to me why "nigger" had become the N-word, something so offensive no one, particularly non-blacks, should dare use or even spell out. No matter the context, it is too ugly a term to be uttered in civil conversation.
James C. Moore, a commentator on CNN, again illustrated this sensitivity by recalling the story of a 17-year-old black farmhand who, less than a hundred years ago, was chained to a tree in Waco, Texas and burned alive, for a murder many historians believe he did not commit. Parts of the charred body were sold as souvenirs to the cheering crowd of about 10,000 whites, many of whom, no doubt, had the N-word on their minds if not their lips.
African Americans being touchy about the N-word? Yes, I can understand that, and I can't see how Deen didn't, someone who was born and raised in the South and indeed made her considerable fortune peddling Southern-ness.
Though far removed from that scenario, San Miguel, with its sizable population of Southern expats, mostly from Texas, is about as close to the South as I've ever lived.
Too close perhaps, I have felt a couple of times. During the presidential race an acquaintance from Dallas casually, and without any particular inflection, mused over dinner that if Herman Cain and Obama both were nominated "we'd have a couple of nigs running for President." Stew was having his soup and paused in mid-slurp, the expression on his face not one so much of offense but astonishment, as if someone suddenly were speaking Latin or some other dead language.
Stew later recalled that growing up in Iowa, the N-word cropped up frequently, and was even used by his dad, but that fifty-some years into the civil rights era it was clearly a word too offensive to be used by anyone. Or so Stew thought.
On another occasion the same guy cut closer to home—my home—by referring to Latinos as "greasers" and in the case of Mexicans with Indian features as "slope-heads," a term I hand't ever heard but didn't sound too endearing. I mentioned this to two other friends from Texas and their reaction was a roll of the eyes and another embarrassed shrug.
In 2008, in a round of e-mails with fellow Cuban-Americans talking about the Obama candidacy, the N-word popped up once or twice, and the comments, cartoons and attachments to some of the messages also took a noticeably racist turn. I was surprised that Cubans my age, who had personally felt the headwinds of ethnic and racial bias when they arrived to the United States, and called "spics" and worse on several occasions, would be so insensitive, clueless—or forgetful—about the hurtfulness and inappropriateness of certain words.
But enough already, before I get on that preachy high horse I'd promised to avoid.