Paula Deen is a Racist (I Think)

Image via Wikimedia Commons, (cc) some rights reserved.  

Image via Wikimedia Commons, (cc) some rights reserved.  

Is it OK to stereotype people? Of course not, my graduate class in strategic communications responded unanimously. Stereotyping is wrong. 

Yet when I showed this American Airlines ad that lampoons a klutzy, white basketball player, everyone laughed. Same for this DirecTV ad that stars a Russian billionaire and his tiny giraffe. 

"They're obviously send-ups," my class responded. "Everyone knows it's a joke." 

But when I played this Metro PCS commercial, featuring nerdy tech geeks Ranjit and Chad, the laughing in the room began to subside. And the snickers turned to sneers when we viewed this SalesGenie ad with Chinese pandas that aired on the Super Bowl.

Stereotypes are mental shortcuts—a valuable lesson taught to me by my friend and colleague at Columbia, Professor Shawn McIntosh. They can either reinforce our thinking, when we agree with the image portrayed, or repel us when we don't. Oftentimes, unconsciously. 

Fallen Food Network personality Paula Deen is learning that lesson the hard way. Deen rose to stardom on a wave of southern hospitality and comfort-food nostalgia. But that star has imploded because allegations of racial discrimination made by a former employee against the celebrity chef "fit" the same deep-fried, antebellum stereotype. 

Paula Deen, the caricature, is a racist. And that's going to make Paula Deen, the person, very difficult to defend in court. Like the ads I showed in class, Deen finds herself on the wrong side of an ugly stereotype. She has become a victim of her own persona—and, perhaps, of our own blue-state biases and beliefs. 

WHEN PICTURES FRAME US: Here's another example of how stereotypes can cloud our judgment. 

THE "LOOSE CANNON" STEREOTYPE: Alec Baldwin isn't a gay basher, he's merely a loose cannon. You can't believe the crazy things that guy says