The New York Times‘s Kim Severson scored an interview with Dora Charles, Paula Deen’s self-described “soul sister,” and while her allegations aren’t quite as damning as lawsuit plaintiff Lisa T. Jackson’s, there’s some pretty heavy stuff in there. Severson frames Charles and Deen’s relationship as a story of inequality “laced with history and deep affection,” with Deen’s runaway success yielding few benefits for a woman who was a crucial part of it.
Charles and Deen have worked together since Deen’s days of managing a hotel restaurant kitchen. The two women went on to work at Deen’s Savannah, Georgia restaurant Lady & Sons; Charles even appeared on some of Deen’s shows and cruises once she hit the big time. But for most of that time, Charles remained an hourly employee, making less than $3 more than federal minimum wage. Charles’s compensation only went up to a $71,000 annual salary after she and three other employees filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
For most of that time, Charles remained an hourly employee, making less than $3 more than federal minimum wage.
Some of Charles’s issues with Deen are more personal. Like Jackson, Charles alleges that Deen used racial slurs in the workplace, and that she once asked Charles to ring a bell outside of the restaurant, a task Charles refused on the grounds that it was “a symbol to me of what we used to do back in the day.” That task later went to another employee, Ineata Jones, who Charles says Deen later asked to wear an Aunt Jemima outfit while making hoecakes at a publicly visible station in Lady & Sons.
The two women nonetheless enjoyed a decades-long personal and working relationship, one that Deen’s lawyers characterize as “over 20 years of generosity.” As for Charles, her closing quote is among the most powerful in the piece: “I might feed her with a long-handled spoon, but, yeah, I’m still her friend.”
Most of the details in the piece are pretty damning, of course, but Severson’s piece is also to be commended for the shades of grey it depicts in Charles and Deen’s relationship. It’s an important reminder that racial bias and discrimination often aren’t as bald-faced as slurs and unequal pay, though both are part of the equation in Deen’s case. Instead, it’s a matter of becoming enmeshed in a set of ugly historical realities that allow people like Deen to believe they’re acting out of “benevolence,” only to get a rude wake-up call in the form of a retracted Wal-Mart endorsement.