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Paula Deen’s Words

Paula Deen’s Words

We all make mistakes. It’s our unwillingness to take responsibility for them that ultimately harms us.


America’s country cooking queen, Paula Deen, is currently the subject of a heated debate about language and second chances after she admitted to using the N-word. Deen apologized on the Today Show last week, but she also stated that people say things they don’t mean sometimes. And then she made a serious mistake by announcing after her apology: “I is what I is. And I’m not changing.”

The Food Network, Smithfield Foods, Caeser’s Entertainment, Walmart, Target, Sears and Kmart all announced that they will no longer be carrying Paula Deen cookware or any other products due to her recent admission. Why wasn’t Deen’s apology enough to save her public image and career?

Many say Deen was focused too much on her own feelings instead of the feelings of the people that she hurt. But the greatest criticism of Deen centered upon the statement: “I is what I is. And I’m not changing.” These words hit a raw nerve because Deen didn't take responsibility for her speech, and she declared her unwillingness to even try to change.

We all say things at times that we don’t mean, but what do we do after we realize we have made a mistake? Can we really change?

Many years ago, my grandfather built up a clothing business with his brother. They started by selling shirts from pushcarts on the Lower East Side and eventually they owned a big store in Manhattan. One day after years of working side by side, my grandfather's brother turned on him. I never really knew what was said or why. Grandpa never liked to talk about it, but from that day on the brothers stopped speaking to each other. Grandpa took his share of the business and his brother kept the store. My grandfather never saw his nephews again who had been like sons to him. The families stopped inviting each other to their celebrations and avoided mentioning each other's names. By the time I was old enough to hear the story, there was a huge branch of my family tree that had basically been cut off forever.

Sometimes I used to ask Grandpa why he didn't try to call his brother and try to repair what was broken. "He'll never change. Too stubborn to say he's sorry. What's the difference? What's gone is gone," my Grandpa would say.

A year before my grandfather passed away he shocked all of us by going to visit his brother who was in a nursing home. It had been more than 40 years since they had seen each other and as soon as my grandfather's brother saw him, he grabbed his hand.

"You were right. I'm sorry. I should have never done what I did," he told my grandfather.

Afterwards Grandpa didn't really want to talk about it nor did he ever see his brother again. But I saw tears fill his eyes when he told me, "He finally said he was sorry. Too late now. But he changed. He said he was sorry."

We can repair what we’ve destroyed. It starts by taking responsibility.

I thought about all those lost years that could never be replaced. The holidays and the bar mitzvahs and the weddings. The separate lives and the families torn apart. It took illness and age to finally prod my grandfather's brother to face the truth inside of himself and to genuinely apologize. It may have been long overdue but he reached out his hand and pushed past his own stubbornness and pride, and did it. He changed.

We should never give up on ourselves by saying, "I is who I is. And I'm not changing." We can overcome the limitations of our pasts, faulty attitudes and the habits of our speech. It doesn't happen overnight, and it's not easy, but it's something we all should strive for.

Paula Deen lost an enormous amount of her life work – not because she made a mistake, but because she wasn't willing to take responsibility for what she did. It is hard to admit when we are wrong. It is hard to reach out and say, “You were right. I'm sorry.” While we still have the chance, even if years have passed, we can repair what we’ve destroyed. We can change how we speak and how we act.

It starts by taking responsibility. Maybe we need to love as if we are dying. Maybe we need to speak as if we are running out of time. Maybe we need to reach as if we are grasping for air itself. For that is what we need to do to really change. We need to want it as much as we want to breathe. Two elderly brothers reached out to each other, even for just a moment, and rebuilt what had been destroyed with those two words: I'm sorry.

June 29, 2013

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Visitor Comments: 143

(97) Maxine Harris, December 18, 2013 1:27 AM

Paula Deen

Paula, like any of us, is in part a product of her culture. While it can be difficult if not impossible to change our vocabulary, she seems unwilling to try. How would we feel about people using ethnic slurs to describe Jews when they thought no Jews heard them? I regret her "insularity chic"--"I is what I is", & I'm also concerned about her apparently unabashed hypocrisy in featuring very unhealthy food on her show while also promoting meds for Type 2 diabetes. She apparently can't even give lip service to having a decent conscience.

(96) Patty berenson-leppert, July 27, 2013 10:36 PM

Paula knows that her southern upbringing dosen't give her a pass. When I was young we were taught that every person has value and dignity. In New Orleans Jews were banned from mardi gras participation but were allowed to donate to the crews..There were water fountains which were for :whites only" "whites only" on entrances to resteraunts and stores. What hurts you, hurts me is an innate feeling you have when you allow that feeling to flower. If you stuff it because you're white and want to feel empowered, you devalue your humanity. Miss Dean devalued her humanity and probably more important to her, her brand. This is a lesson we should all pay attention to. If not, we're missing a rich lesson. Take it for what it is.

(95) Betty, July 19, 2013 7:11 PM

The Lady Paula

Who among us has not grown in 25 years? We have all said and done things that we regret...Paula's remark was not said in front of her African-American employees..Yes, it was wrong, but she didn't hurt anyone's feelings. This is all about a successful woman, a great mother, and probably a wonderful employer, who made a bad remark in front of a loser employee , and who wants some of Paula's wealth.

End of story...

(94) Karen, July 11, 2013 2:58 PM

You took it out of context

She said "I is what I is" about being a caring and loving person, not about using the n word. Everyone acts like this is something she said yesterday instead of a long time ago. All this was dredged up when a disgruntled white employee decided to bring suite against her to make some big bucks.
I am not excusing, but Paula is from the south and not too long ago that was just common language. Obviously she did change with the times and does not make a common practice of using that word now.
This has all been a complete over reaction.
Give her a break and show some compassion!

(93) Jill, July 7, 2013 5:47 PM

Your grandfather should have apologized

Your grandfather should have gone to his brother and made shalom, even if he thought his brother was the one who did something wrong. He is as much to blame for standing firm in his stubbornness as his brother was. How sad that blaming "the other side" so often keeps people apart.

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