Sorry, Paula Deen, Aunt Jemima Costumes Are Still Pretty Racist

The Atlantic
Sorry, Paula Deen, Aunt Jemima Costumes Are Still Pretty Racist
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Sorry, Paula Deen, Aunt Jemima Costumes Are Still Pretty Racist

And things were going so well, too. Just as the Paula Deen debacle was starting to fade from our national consciousness, Deen's longtime friend and former "soul sister" Dora Charles opened up to The New York Times about how awful her butter-loving BFF is. “It’s just time that everybody knows that Paula Deen don’t treat me the way they think she treat me,” Charles told the Times. Charles worked with Deen for 22 years, training employees, creating recipes and running quality control at Lady & Sons, Deen's flagship restaurant. While the two appeared to be close—they celebrated birthdays together, and Deen wrote “[i]f I lost Dora, I would have been devastated” in her 2007 memoir—Charles claims that there was racial discrimination and harassment at Paula Deen's company. 

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Charles stirred the pot with a few new allegations against Deen:

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  • Even after Paula Deen became a Food Network star, she paid Charles less than $10 per hour for several years. According to Lisa T. Jackson, the litigant from the lawsuit that started this all, Charles was being paid less than white employees with less seniority.
  • Deen asked one of her employees, Ineata "Jellyroll" Jones, to dress up in an old-style Aunt Jemima costume
  • Charles also claims that Deen referred to her and other employees with a "racially offensive term for a black child." The Times doesn't get more specific than that, except to say Deen denied using the term.
  • She also asked Charles "ring a dinner bell in front of the restaurant, hollering for people to come and get it." Charles refused: “That’s a symbol to me of what we used to do back in the day.”

Despite airing out their dirty laundry in The Times, Charles still considers Deen her friend. “I might feed her with a long-handled spoon, but, yeah, I’m still her friend.”

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Yes, Deen put Charles on the cover of her book Paula Deen & Friends (third from the left in the background), but, given the circumstances, Deen might not feel the same way anymore. She's denied all of the allegations Charles has made through a statement released by her publicity team:

Fundamentally Dora’s complaint is not about race but about money. It is about an employee that despite over 20 years of generosity feels that she still deserves yet even more financial support from Paula Deen.

Yep, definitely not friends at this point. On the one hand, Charles did enjoy some of the benefits of working for the Queen of Butter. As the Times article notes:

Mrs. Charles attended Ms. Deen’s wedding. Sometimes Mrs. Charles appeared on the television shows as part of her day job. She also performed on Ms. Deen’s signature cruises, taking vacation time to do so, though her expenses were paid. She sometimes received clothes and other free goods that came along as Ms. Deen’s star rose.

Charles' pay was also eventually upped to $71,000 a year, but that pay bump took place right around the time that Jackson helped her and three other employees file complaints with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Deen's son also said they would fix the rotting floor of her trailer, but one wonders why her floor was rotting in the first place. Charles says that Deen once said "[s]tick with me, Dora, and I promise you one day if I get rich you’ll get rich.”

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Paula Deen is worth $17 million. Racist or not, $71,000 and a few cruises after 22 years of service, from someone who was essential to your success, doesn't reflect well on the troubled fry-loving chef.

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