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Chat: Comfort food, uncomfortable topics

Chat: Comfort food, uncomfortable topics
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Monday, July 1, 2013 - 4:59pm

Good conversations can happen when people gather together around a dinner table - and recent news has given us an awful lot to chew on.

Race has been front and center in the headlines recently. Brands distanced themselves from celebrity chef Paula Deen after she admitted to using racially charged language. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on affirmative action and gutted the Voting Rights Act with the admonition to Congress that "things in the South have changed." The Senate passed historic immigration legislation. And the testimony of Rachel Jeantel in the George Zimmerman trial was the subject of much judgment.

Alicia Stewart, who covers issues of identity for CNN and Eatocracy's managing editor Kat Kinsman, invited a few expert guests to offer insight into the controversy that has arisen around issues of race, identity, food and redemption, and invited commenters to weigh in.

Meet our guests:

Adrian Miller is an attorney, a former Deputy Director of President Clinton's Initiative on One America, a former board member of the Southern Foodways Alliance and the author of the forthcoming "Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time" that will be published by the University of North Carolina Press in August 2013.

Tricia Rose is the incoming director of Brown University's Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America.

These are highlights from the chat (see the full transcript here):

Kat Kinsman: Does a person get a pass if they were "just raised like that" or "came from a different time" as Deen's defenders have said?

Adrian Miller: "Absolutely not. Though one's social circumstance may go a long way to explaining a mindset, there's still the question of what causes a person to act a certain way. I know white Southerners who were raised during the same era as Deen and they abhor the use of racial slurs. If we believe in progress, then people have to show the capacity to change.

I would add that we've also a desire to move on from the past. Some want to take a shortcut and not talk about racism while others want to roll up their sleeves and do some reconciliation work."

Tricia Rose: "I think this is strange. You could give everything a pass with this logic. But, let me also say that I DO NOT think Deen should have become so radioactive and nor do I think all her endorsements should have been so quickly pulled based on using the N-word. But I DO think she should be challenged and her apology criticized for the reasons I've offered."

Commenter iReporter Omékongo: In a world where we have the ability to learn what we do not know about one another, no one should get a pass for being "raised like that." As the saying goes, 'It ain't where you're from, it's where you're at.' Deen needs to get with the new time we live in."

Kat Kinsman: Does a particular group have the right to lay claim to a dish or ingredient or tradition and is it important to hang onto these things? We ran a piece recently about Paula Deen's critics saying that she didn't give enough credit to African American cooks, and things got HOT in the kitchen.

Rose: "The history of cultural theft of black Americans is astonishing broad and deep and ongoing. It is hard though to see the plagiarism rules working in cultural contexts. But something modified -- where we work to undo both the theft, denial and then disregard of black contributions. I think now we imagine ourselves to be past this. But we are not."

Miller: "When it comes to a shared cuisine, particularly one that's been around for a few centuries, it's tricky to parse who first created a dish. It's easier to point to what ingredients and cooking styles were traditional to a certain part of the world or to a group of people.

From there, we have to acknowledge that cooks borrow, imitate and learn from other culinary cultures. If chefs can take the time to tell you how they locally sourced an ingredient, it's not too hard for them to give some cultural attribution."

Commenter Jessica Timmons: "I feel that it is very important to involve yourself in the foodways of a culture that you are actively promoting as 'your own.' That said, Deen should have been a champion for teaching people these very things."

Kat Kinsman: "One of the people I interviewed, Michaela Angela Davis, said: 'African-Americans being ashamed to eat fried chicken or watermelons is heartbreaking and in complete alignment of the philosophical alignment of oppression and slavery. You're made to turn against yourself and abandon your culture.''"

Rose: "This is part of a sad history of denying or hiding or not properly touting the incredible contributions black people have made to American and the world culture. It seems that when it comes to black contributions, celebrating their origins is some how exclusionary. But for others, it is simply a matter of pride and education about one's tradition. Black people seem to be regularly discouraged from naming their influences and claiming them."

Alicia Stewart: Food is important to a culture, as is history, but some say the past is in the past. Why does history or slavery still matter to African-Americans if they or their parents have not personally experienced it?

Rose: "I think our educational system has to play a crucial role in educating everyone about the history of race and racism. If we don't provide serious background on this, and develop the chops to deal with the issue in classrooms (virtual and otherwise), then these flare-ups are destined to be influential and largely ill-informed. I am struck by the "Groundhog Day" feeling so many incidents generate in me. We are here again??!!! Same misunderstandings based on serious gap in knowledge."

Miller: "The history is important because African Americans are still living with the legacy of slavery through the persistence of racism (individual and institutional), racial disparities and devalued social status. Sometimes the weight of that legacy is made plain, other times it's lurking in the shadows. Knowing this history helps us all diagnose the root cause(s) of a problem with the hope of figuring out a way to remedy that problem...and keep it from reappearing in another form."

Commenter iReporter Omékongo: "The Holocaust still matters to Jewish kids who have not experienced it. There are so many issues the Native American community is still dealing with that current generations did not experience. History matters. Much of the status different groups have attained in America can be traced back to America's racist past and who was allowed to advance based on race, religion, or gender. Every group has had to fight to go beyond the historical expectations placed upon them by this society."

Alicia Stewart: If as Deen alleges, her kitchen staff uses racial slurs amongst themselves, why shouldn't she feel free to use the same language? And why, as an owner of the business, wouldn't she require that they not use that language?

Miller: "This is one of the goofiest and hardest 'race rules' to understand, but it's the easiest to figure out: if you're part of the group using the slurs, it's OK to use them. If you're not, it's offensive speech. If Deen was distressed by such language, she absolutely should tell her employees that they can talk however they want outside of the workplace."

Commenter iReporter Omékongo: "At Oprah's studio in Chicago, staff are not allowed to chew gum because Oprah hates gum. If she can have that rule, I think Deen (if she cared) could have a rule saying 'No use of racially offensive language or profanity by anyone.' It's her company!"

Rose: "Of course, part of this is about whites' constant drive to explain their own use of the N-word by pointing to black people's use. Why is this?"

Kat Kinsman: Are people obligated to change and move forward after acknowledging mistakes?

Rose: "No they are not obligated to do anything. The question is what do they want after a given incident. If you want forgiveness, and you want to develop a relationship with those you have harmed, you have to listen, take serious account of their perspectives, think deeply about how you might need to make some changes and what they might be, going forward. In Deen's case, It is about her wanting to be forgiven in public so that she can maintain her empire and her reputation.

If she wants these things then she is, in my mind, obligated to signal a desire to change and a willingness to consider that she is badly educated on race, racism and how we might be contributing to discrimination in our actions."

Miller: "I think it going through a cycle of understanding where you went wrong, showing contrition, and then taking affirmative steps to change and help others learn from your mistake."

Alicia Stewart: Are there meaningful ways -- words or actions -- to recover from racist acts, or racism? What are they?

Rose: "I think the key is to really understand the contexts that shape our actions. we spend so much time thinking of ourselves as individual agents as if we are not impacted by so many forces around us. This encourages us to think recovery is just about us."

Miller: "Here's a thought exercise. What if the Food Network aired a one-hour special where it gathered its diverse network personalities associated with southern food (the Deens, the Lee Brothers, Trisha Yearwood, and the Neelys) along with some African American and Native American foodways cooks/experts and have them do a roundtable discussion about the development of this unique regional cuisine? They could expose its painful past as well as its triumphs.

After a robust discussion, they could actually get in the kitchen and make some shared dishes and show the cuisine in all of its complexity. That walk through history would inform and seeing the participants cook and eat together would be a form of visible and edible redemption. Nothing like that has ever been done, and it could inspire similar efforts around the country."

Read the full transcript here. Note -- comments were edited and condensed for clarity.

 

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