I know, I know … lots of radio silence from my end. Hey, it’s been a busy summer, after a busy school year.

Paula_Deen_can_cookBut holy crap, the Paula Deen story has brought me out of my writing-and-watching-tennis malaise. Maybe you’ve heard about Deen’s racism, her frequent use of the N word to her employees and her poor treatment of Blacks in her several businesses. In focusing so intently on her use of the N word, however, journalists have ignored the vast bulk of the story which deals with sexual harassment, misogyny, racial and sexual violence, and over five years of ignored complaints about all of the above.

Don’t want to read the full formal court complaint? Let me offer some crucial details as I ask: What’s wrong with our culture that we can’t see this is a case of BOTH racism and sexism?

It would be easy to attack Deen’s public persona, the syrupy-accented Food Channel cook who naughtily put more butter into everything while winking at her viewers. But no matter how you feel about that persona, you have to admit she’s a canny and spectacularly successful businesswoman — a woman who has used gender to her advantage in every way. She has built a multi-million dollar empire on food and her self-portrayal as “The Lady” — her restaurant in Savannah is called The Lady and Sons, for example.

The problem is not just that behind the scenes Deen is a racist. It’s also that she maligns, under-pays, and permits sexual harrassment and violence toward her female employees. Old South, indeed.

Mainstream coverage of the case has focused on racial slurs used by Deen or implicitly condoned by her when her managers or business partner/brother used them. But Deen and her partners were equal-opportunity bigots. They referred to the litigant as “almost Jewish” because of her business acumen — in fact, Deen’s brother Bubba (sigh) called her his “little Jew girl” — while they insisted on a strict policy of paying women far less than men, and refused to promote women to positions that might pay more.

bubba

Deen’s brother Bubba (“Uncle Bubba”) Hiers, the main source of the charges of sexual harassment and physical violence

“Women are stupid because they think they can work and have babies and get everything done,” was one such (alleged) pronouncement by Karl Schumacher, the douchebag who oversaw compensation for Deen’s empire of companies. Schumacher was also responsible for taking away the litigant’s annual bonus when she got divorced, because he disapproved of divorce. (Hm. Deen herself was divorced at the age of 23. Oh well, never mind.)

Meanwhile, the court documents reveal that brother Bubba sexually harassed the litigant with sexual and misogynistic jokes, pornography, insulting comments about female employees’ weight or physical attractiveness — all the while skimming profits off the top and wallowing about in a drunken stupor.

All in all — by my eyeballing of the 33-pg court document — the specific cases of gender bias and sexual harassment total about three times the amount of evidence of racial discrimination and violence. This should not surprise us, as the litigant is a white woman and has launched the case based on her own experiences as a manager within Deen’s empire; doubtless a Black employee would have far more evidence of racial crap. Nevertheless, I’m stunned by the fact that the vast majority of misogyny is ignored by the mainstream press in order to focus most of all on the racial slurs used by Deen, Bubba Hiers, and her managers.

The racism is stunning and awful — but why can’t we see that it is of a piece with Deen’s and Hiers’ overall plantation mentality? Why can’t journalists demonstrate that this is not a case of simple racism, but a corporate culture in which white men and a single plantation “lady” reign supreme, all the while insisting on the subjection of all black and female others?

I’m sorry, but I think the American public can grasp that the Old South exemplified in the Deen corporate empire is not simply racist. Leaving the female employees’ stories out of the mainstream coverage is a crime, for it points out the kinds of experiences that millions of women encounter every day in their jobs as well.

Racism and sexism aren’t separate problems in the workplace; nor do they fall in a hierarchy in which one or the other is more important. Racism and sexism intersect in myriad ways, all of which become clear in the court documents in the Deen case. The public is smart enough to recognize that — and smart enough to know that when mainstream media coverage ignores 3/4 of the damning evidence against the Deen empire, it represents an implicit message: “Ladies, your workplace complaints are not important.”

It may be that Deen getting fired from the Food Channel and losing her corporate sponsors results entirely from those accounts of her using the N word to her employees. That would be too bad. I venture to guess that a huge percentage of her support comes from women — women who see her story of a young divorcée building success in a classically American way (bootstraps, gumption, self-made woman) as inspiring and worthy of support. That‘s the public that needs to hear how women of all races were treated behind the scenes. Because Deen’s claim to be “The Lady” has a long history in the United States — a history rooted more in the Plantation Mistress than the Self-Made Man. We need to know this.

Read this story at the Village Voice about Debrahlee Lorenzana, who was fired from her job at Citibank.  They say it was due to her work performance.  She says it was because “her bosses told her they couldn’t concentrate on their work because her appearance was too distracting. They ordered her to stop wearing turtlenecks. She was also forbidden to wear pencil skirts, three-inch heels, or fitted business suits,” according to the Voice.  There is an extraordinary record of her complaints to the company’s HR department — she called them three or four times a day to report the harassment by her managers — which accomplished nothing.

The result?  As Twisty Faster notes succinctly on her blog, the one relevant question in the case — was Lorenzana discriminated against? — is completely lost, while everyone from journalists to bloggers to the trolls who comment online turns her case into questions about:

  • “Lorenzana’s Christian Louboutin heels
  • Lorenzana’s point on the sexbot continuum
  • Lorenzana’s aspirations to fame and fortune
  • That Lorenzana unlikeably tried to save herself by ratting out some women tellers for wearing hooker outfits 
  • Whether Lorenzana chooses to emit porn rays, or whether her natural self merely happens to conform precisely to pornulated beauty ideals.”

There’s nothing more depressing to me than the fact that this central question has been lost in everyone’s eagerness to hate the hot chick.  The uneasily sympathetic Voice essay offers a slideshow of photos showing how hot she is.  Jezebel turns it into a question of whether Lorenzana committed “girl-on-girl crime” by pointing out that the other women in the office wore far more provocative clothes than she did.  (Surely someone should note, here in the midst of the pile-on about Elena Kagan’s clothes, that women are encouraged to look sexy at work — that is, until they look as hot as Lorenzana?)  Some jackass at the Daily Mail makes fun of her name and accuses her of spending too much money on clothes.  WE MUST PUNISH THE HOT LATINA, AND THEN LOOK AT MORE PHOTOS OF HER CURVES.

Is she hot?  IT DOESN’T MATTER.  What matters is that she was harassed on a daily basis and her complaints ignored.  Remember Anita Hill’s case of nearly 20 years ago, when we were shown that a woman could describe daily harassment at the workplace and senators insisted she was crazy?   

It’s not that we haven’t been talking about sexual harassment.  My job requires me to take a compliance test on a regular basis that reminds me how to deal with harassment issues.  Lorenzana’s case makes me question seriously what would happen if I came forward with such a case.  Feminists have been so thoroughly sidelined in our media that this story simply becomes a vehicle for more attacks than she’s already received.

In my dream feminist world, Lorenzana would co-host a new version of CNBC’s “Equal Time” (ah, the early 90s…) with another female co-host on issues women face in the workplace.  They would give serious attention to sexual harassment cases like hers, discuss pay equity and the mommy track, single motherhood (Lorenzana is a single mother), the class-action suits by women against huge corporations like Wal-Mart and Merrill Lynch, and approach the subject of gender inequity in many fields, including academia.  In short, she would become a kick-ass feminist who takes no prisoners.  I can see the feminist comic-book superhero version of her now.