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It's Time To Move On From The Past

Celebrity chef Paula Deen appears on NBC News' <em>Today</em> show on Wednesday.
NBC, Peter Kramer
Celebrity chef Paula Deen appears on NBC News' Today show on Wednesday.

I've been thinking a lot about forgiveness – a subject that's been coming up quite a bit lately because, really, how could it not?

As I was putting my thoughts together, Paula Deen, one of the queens of high-calorie Southern cookery, was still on her apology tour, trying to explain a few things, like her use of the N-word and the desire to dress up an army of black male waiters so that her brother could have the fun experience of being served by them at a, quote, "true Southern plantation-style wedding."

All this came out at a deposition in a lawsuit brought by an aggrieved former employee who says that her workplace, a restaurant owned by Deen and her brother, was hostile to the point of being, well, a place somebody might use the N-word, show off pornography, or ask you to dress up like a slave.

In the deposition, Deen went on to explain that the N-word was not a word that, quote, "we use as time has gone by." That, quote, "things have changed since the '60s in the South" and that her children, among other people, object to the use of the word.

And in her video last week and appearance on the Today show, she said she was profoundly sorry and wanted to sincerely apologize to those she'd hurt.

Now, I know a lot of people are having fun at her expense. It's kind of hard to resist having fun at the expense of somebody who urged people to eat more butter than you can churn at a county fair, got Type 2 diabetes, and then 'fessed up only when she started hawking a diabetes drug.

But having said that, let's take her at her word that she is sincerely sorry. And not just that she got caught and is losing lucrative business deals, but that she's sorry she hurt people who believed in her, looked up to her, or saw her as a friend. So now the question becomes, what now?

Can I just tell you? Paula Deen is not the only one who needs to face the question of what now — both now and into the future as this country continues to change. Part of that reason is that we as a country, and just as people walking around living our lives, have never really figured out how to reckon with our racial past.

Yes we have tried, and we are trying. There have been big gestures. And small ones too, like earlier this year at the annual commemoration of the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march for voting rights. When the new police chief of Montgomery, a white man, took off his badge and offered it to Congressman John Lewis, a black man who'd been badly beaten by the police when he and other marchers first tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge back in 1965, it was a gesture of apology and gratitude. Both men cried.

And white people aren't the only people who have — and who should have — stepped up to apologize for things said and done. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Rev. Al Sharpton, both have apologized for being racially provocative in ways that were hurtful and wrong. And both still face detractors who will never believe their contrition is real and heartfelt. And I guarantee you, many will feel the same way about Deen.

But they'll deal with that because they are leaders, they are famous, and they have a lot of people who will stand by them no matter what.

My question is, where can the rest of us go for our forgiveness?

Those of us who don't have an army of public relations consultants, those of us who grew up a certain way, surrounded by people who thought it was not just OK but right to ridicule or look down on blacks or Jews, or gays or Poles, or whoever.

For most of our history, you didn't have to be special to think that way — you just had to be normal. So what do you do when you think about the gay kid you may have pushed down the stairs because you somehow thought you should? Or the immigrant kid whose accent you laughed at, because everybody else did?

Maybe it's worth remembering that while Paula Deen is having her moment in the deep fat fryer, we will soon lose Nelson Mandela, who made forgiveness of those who persecuted him an art that some say saved his nation.

Maybe what this country needs is a truth and reconciliation commission like the one South Africa had. But maybe we could have one in every town, maybe in the library, maybe in the park. And we could get together every now and again and explain to each other, and our children, how a country founded in greatness can still get some things very wrong, and how we're trying to make it right.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: June 25, 2013 at 11:00 PM CDT
In a previous audio version of this story, we mistakenly say Birmingham, Ala., when Montgomery, Ala., was meant.