SAN DIEGO - Paula Deen whipped up a batch of trouble for herself by admitting that she has used an ugly racial expletive aimed at African-Americans.
Still, there is something about the universal scorn that has been heaped on the 66-year-old celebrity chef in the last several few days, and how quickly it was served up, that leaves a bad taste in one's mouth.
Here's how things developed. Lisa T. Jackson, a former manager of a restaurant in Savannah, Ga., that Deen owns with her brother, is suing them both, alleging racial and sexual harassment. During a deposition, Deen was asked if she had ever used the "N-word."
"Yes, of course," she said. However, she added: "I'm sure I have but it's been a very long time."
That's when her goose was cooked. Deen apologized three times, via YouTube. And still, experts say that her media empire -- TV, books, speeches and all the rest -- may not survive.
Really? Is this what passes for racial progress these days? Is it written somewhere that no one can ever say a certain racial slur anytime or anyplace? Are there other words, aimed at other groups, that are also off-limits? It is one thing for a media personality to utter the "N-word" -- or any other racial or ethnic slur on the air -- and another to do so in private? Or is there no difference?
Can we even ask these questions? It's depressing that -- in this era where political correctness often supplants critical thinking -- commentators can't even question whether someone has been treated fairly without being accused of condoning her behavior, or in this case, language.
I don't condone it. I condemn the use of the "N-word" by anyone. I was raised by parents, Mexican-Americans who knew all about prejudice, not to use such distasteful words intended to insult people based on race, ethnicity, national origin, religion or sexual orientation.
But, as someone who has written about race and ethnicity for more than two decades, I'm not the least bit surprised that a white woman who was born in Georgia in 1947, and probably had much of her worldview shaped long before Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have A Dream" speech, might use the "N-word" in polite company.
Anyway, this isn't about a word. This is about how someone is being treated by a media that have been known to rush to judgment, sketch out caricatures based on regional stereotypes, and spitefully pile on public figures who are rich, famous and successful.
This is also about how that person is being treated by folks she thought were her friends, including self-righteous corporations that are rethinking their relationship with Deen.
The executives who run the Food Network -- which is jointly owned by Scripps Networks Interactive and Tribune Company -- must have known full well that they had hired a Southerner with an attitude who could dish up both tasty treats and charming quips. And they happily went along and marketed the heck out of that image, making barrels of money in the process. And, when things got too hot in the kitchen, they cut her loose.
There was additional fallout from Smithfield Foods, a pork producing company based in Smithfield, Va., which has partnered with Deen since 2006. It issued a statement saying that the company "condemns the use of offensive and discriminatory language and behavior of any kind," and so it was terminating its relationship with the chef.
Companies have the right to partner with whomever they like, and to distance themselves from those who might visit shame or embarrassment upon their brands. No one is saying otherwise. But it would have been nice to see these corporations -- which again profited from their relationship with Deen -- show some loyalty.
Doing damage control is easy. But every corporation in America should make the hiring and promoting of a diverse workforce a top priority. That's the important part of this story. And that's where we go from here. In any industry, including my own, it's easy to pretend to be liberal on issues of racial inclusion and social justice by condemning someone else. It's a lot harder to lead by example.
Enough already. It's time to take Paula Deen off the hot plate. Those who care about racial justice have bigger fish to fry. People make mistakes. They apologize. We move on.