SAVANNAH, Ga. — On Wednesday, word broke that Savannah’s celebrity chef Paula Deen had acknowledged during questioning related to a lawsuit that she had used the “N” word sometime in the past.
Federal court documents reviewed by the Savannah Morning News state that Deen admitted using the “N” word in the past but insists it was “a very long time ago.”
In her deposition, taken May 17, Deen said she used the word after a black man had held a gun to her head during a robbery at the bank where she worked at the time.
No specific time frame is mentioned, but the incident would pre-date the beginning of her rise to fame as a Southern chef and entrepreneur who became a celebrity on the Food Network and has written 14 cookbooks.
On Friday, Food Network announced it would not renew Deen’s contract when it expires at the end of June.
In the deposition, Deen denied telling racial jokes or tolerating racial harassment in her family-run enterprises.
The deposition was taken in connection with a civil suit by Lisa Jackson, a former general manager of Uncle Bubba’s Seafood and Oyster House Inc. on Whitemarsh Island, which is operated by Deen’s brother, Earl W. “Bubba” Hiers.
Jackson alleges that she was the victim of sexual harassment and a persistent pattern of racial discrimination in the workplace during her five years at Uncle Bubba’s.
Paula Deen and Hiers are named as defendants along with The Lady & Sons restaurant in Savannah and Hiers’ seafood house.
A distraught Deen on Friday issued video statements begging for forgiveness from everybody for what she called “the wrong that I’ve done.”
Calls to Lisa Jackson’s attorneys in Savannah and Atlanta for comment on Friday were not returned.
Earlier in the week, William Franklin Jr., Deen’s attorney, said she was looking forward to her day in court.
Her own words
The deposition Deen gave May 17, taken by Atlanta attorney Matthew Billips and filed June 17, was in preparation for trial of the Jackson case.
“Have you ever used the ‘N’ word yourself?” Billips asked.
“Yes, of course,” Deen responded, saying it happened in reference to a black man who put a gun to her head during a bank robbery where she worked.
“Have you used it since then?”
“I’m sure I have, but it’s been a very long time.”
“Miss Deen, have you ever told racial jokes?”
“No, not racial.”
Deen went on to say the “N” word is not one she used as time passed.
“Things have changed since the ’60s in the South,” she said. “And my children and my brother object to that word being used in any cruel or mean behavior.”
In another exchange, Deen discussed jokes targeting groups, conceding that “most jokes target. … They usually target, though a group. Gays or straights, black, redneck, you know. … I can’t determine what offends another person.”
“And would you consider telling jokes, racial jokes, to be an example of using the ‘N’ word in a way that’s not mean?” Billips asked.
“No, I wouldn’t – I wouldn’t tell it. … I mean, that’s not my style.”
Later in the deposition, Deen was questioned about plans for her brother’s wedding and a restaurant she and her husband visited in “Tennessee or North Carolina or somewhere.”
“The whole entire wait staff was middle-aged black men and they had on beautiful white jackets with a black bow tie. I mean, it was really impressive.
“And I remember saying I would love to have servers like that, I said, but I would be afraid that somebody would misinterpret.”
She told Billips she would use the word “black” to describe the race of what she called “professional black men doing a fabulous job,” adding, “I don’t usually use African-Americans.”
She went on to testify she had said, “I would love for Bubba to experience a real Southern-style wedding,” referring to the food. Deen denied using the word “n---” to describe the servers.
“Before the Civil War, those black men and women who were waiting on white people were slaves, right?” Billips asked.
“Yes, I would say that they were slaves,” she responded. “But I did not mean anything derogatory by saying I loved their look and their professionalism.”
“Is there any possibility, in your mind, that you slipped and used the word ‘n-----’?”
“No, because that’s not what these men were. They were professional black men doing a fabulous job,” she responded.
When asked about racial harassment, Deen said she thought she would recognize it and said, “We don’t tolerate that.”
Court documents reveal tensions have erupted among the lawyers in the case as well. Both sides have repeatedly asked a judge to impose sanctions on opposing counsel and other parties.
In one filing, Hiers’ attorney, Tom Withers, asked that Billips be disqualified, quoting a tweet by Billips in which he said “suing Paula Deen is a hoot.”
Withers also referred to a sexually laced tweet in which “Billips promises to symbolically undress and have sex with” Deen.
Withers contends Billips’ conduct is designed to “harass and maliciously injure Paula Deen.”
The case began with an “inflammatory letter seeking over a million dollars for forego filing a lawsuit and allow Deen ‘a chance to salvage a brand that can continue to have value,’ ” Withers’ document said.
In Jackson’s deposition taken Feb. 11, she recounts how Dora Childs, an employee at The Lady & Sons, told her “probably sometime in 2010” that she felt discriminated against when a white male kitchen manager was promoted over her, adding, “and that Paula made racist comments.”
Deens’ attorney, Franklin, asked Jackson: “You have never heard Paula make a racist remark, have you?”
“Not heard it,” Jackson replied.
“You have never known Paula to discriminate against a person based on gender, have you?”
“I’m not aware.”
“And you have never known Paula to sexually harass anyone, have you?”