Though I've lived in New York for more than 20 years, I have a Tennessee drawl that betrays my Southern roots. People get a kick out of it. They find Southernness funny, all that fiddlin' and griddlin'. Nobody ever associates me with my homeland's deplorable racial history. Or at least I thought they didn't. Then Paula Deen planned her dream wedding.

Actually, it was her brother's wedding, as you may recall from news of the discrimination suit a few years ago. According to the former employee who filed it, Paula envisioned a "Southern plantation" theme, with a waitstaff of white-shirted, bow-tied black men—only, allegedly, she didn't say "black men." Paula insisted that part of the story wasn't true; the claim was dismissed on a technicality. But in her deposition, she admitted to using the N word before—though she noted that "things have changed since the '60s in the South."

I'd always thought Paula was a hoot. She put a burger between two Krispy Kreme doughnuts! She's hog-wild, y'all! Why hadn't I seen her ham and banana casserole for what it was—the banality of evil? I knew plenty of people wouldn't be surprised if she wanted to turn black men into retro set pieces. Racism, like biscuits and magnolias, was just another thing that made Southerners who we were.

I tend to forget I'm Southern unless someone brings it up. I hate when people imitate my accent, the way it turns me into a mash-up of Scarlett O'Hara, Julia Sugarbaker, and the two Blanches (DuBois and Devereaux). Of course, I laugh anyway because I assume everybody is in on the joke. But in the wake of Paulagate, I questioned what else people had been thinking, what things they assumed my family said when no one could hear.

My countrywoman and I were drawn into an unholy kinship of disgrace by association. When I had to call a new African American colleague on the West Coast who'd never met me face-to-face, I wondered: Was it Paula he imagined on the other end of the line, crocheting a Mammy-doll tissue cozy? My face flushed, as if I'd embarrassed myself. I could muster all my charm, but it would prove nothing; everybody knows white Southern ladies are good fakers. I couldn't say, "Hey, before we hang up? I'm not Paula Deen."

Nine hundred miles and two decades away from my life in Tennessee, I'd thought I was no more speechless and remorseful about racism than any other white American, but I was wrong. There's an expression we have in the South: ugly as homemade sin. Paula, homemade sin is part of our legacy, just like lard—which might be delicious but is poison, too. We'd be fools to forget it.

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