Heidi Hall, The Tennessean
NASHVILLE -- By now, most white Americans have figured out they can't say the N-word in public and not face backlash.
But when it comes to other racial jokes or commentary, some aren't so sure.
How about planning a "true Southern-plantation style wedding" with an all-black wait staff? Or telling an employee of color he can't be seen against a black backdrop used for a video shoot?
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Depositions in a racial discrimination lawsuit against TV chef Paula Deen and her on-camera antics, followed by the chatter about her remarks, laid bare Americans' complex views on racial talk. Wednesday morning, she'll take to NBC's Today show to discuss it herself with Matt Lauer.
While it may be surprising, some African Americans find themselves ready to forgive and forget. Certain people in a certain context can be forgiven, and others can't. Deen is in the first camp, they say.
"It's not politically correct to say you want a wedding like that, even if you want it," said Otis Carter, 60, shaking his head. "I know what culture she was raised in, and it's just being ignorant."
Carter sat on the front stoop Tuesday afternoon at Jimmy Kelly's Steakhouse restaurant, where he's a server. The restaurant, just west of downtown Nashville, Tenn., is famed for its history, its steaks and, at one time, its all-black, all-male wait staff.
Some surmised Deen might be referring to Jimmy Kelly's in her statements about the wedding plans, which she said were inspired by visiting a restaurant in "Tennessee or North Carolina or somewhere." That's possible, Carter said, but the restaurant's staff is more diverse these days.
Still, in 2013, he faces earnest requests from white patrons who don't understand they're being offensive - including requests to play "Dixie" on the nights he plays the trumpet instead of serving.
"I don't play 'Dixie,' " Carter tells them. "I ain't wishing I was in the land of cotton."
But even while objecting to Deen's reported language, Carter didn't wish to see her "punished" by losing her Food Network shows - which happened Friday - or Monday's loss of a partnership with Smithfield Foods.
People shouldn't even stop going to Deen's restaurant, said Reco Hight, a Nashville gospel singer and computer security engineer. He and his wife have visited Savannah, Ga., twice solely to eat at The Lady and Sons, and he'll happily go back.
Hight, 36, said he knows whites might be baffled at his lack of outrage, but that's because they don't understand the subtleties behind who can talk about race, when and how. Much depends on whether you're considered familiar with black life.
"We've educated people who are not black to be careful, you can't say this around each and every one," he said. "Someone like Paula Deen - she's been cooking soul food. It's the thing she's built her empire on. (Rapper) Eminem is telling his life story, putting himself on display, being vulnerable. Those types of people using those terms are completely different. African Americans would not consider those people outsiders."
The real trouble is that there's no typical situation where Americans learn to talk appropriately about race, said Raymond Winbush, director of the Institute for Urban Research at Morgan State University in Baltimore.
He's talking a lot these days about the "Rules of Racism," a sociology term that loosely refers to when words or actions cross the line. Deen violated the rules when her views became public fodder, Winbush said, which just shows how ignorant of them she is.
Lucky for her, he said, a hallmark of black culture is forgiveness of whites who err like that.
"Black people measure a person's racism," said Winbush. "Are they ignorantly being stupid? We'll forgive them. Hostile and stupid? We will not."
His schedule these days shows how sensitive America remains to racial issues. He spent Tuesday mostly giving interviews about the U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down key parts of the Voting Rights Act, created in 1965 to protect Southern black voters. Monday, it sent a case on affirmative action in universities back to a lower court.
It might be more useful for the public discourse to allow a chastened Deen back in front of a national audience, said Carol Swain, a professor of political science and law at Vanderbilt University known for her work on race relations.
The Food Network hired Deen as an expert on cooking, not race, Swain said. And her feeling is that the public isn't as angry as Food Network and Smithfield might think they are. Without the media keeping the story alive, she said, the public soon would forget Deen's sins.
"By not continuing to isolate and punish (racial offenders), you're more likely to end up with a better person," said Swain. "As a Christian, I'm for forgiveness and redemption. A lot of us say things we wouldn't want public."