Southerners and the N-Word, for the Record, Y’all

This is not to pile on Paula Deen whose public excoriation for using the N-word has been well covered, but to clarify something about Southerners and the N-word in general.

Paula Deen, via
Paula Deen, via

In some accounts there is the suggestion that because Deen is from the so-called Old South, there may have been a time where it was acceptable to say n***** (rap artists and Richard Pryor notwithstanding).

Well I’m from the Old South, too, many generations of it, and it was never okay to say that word in our house. Never.

My Southern friends and I have been discussing this as you can imagine, and we rankle at all being tarred by the same brush. Yes growing up we heard the n-word used plenty, but not by us and not by our mamas. It was forbidden in our houses and for all the right reasons. Many of our parents’ generation may not have been socially or racially liberal, but they were respectful, and they had manners.

We couldn’t say “shut up” in our house either, but that is what Paula Deen should have done a while ago.

From The Daily Beast, here Paula Deen’s Apology for Using the N-Word is Ridiculous, here Food Network Fires Paula Deen, and Details From Her Deposition 


  1. I’m from Alabama and we did not say the “n” word either. Nor did we say “shut up” — we were encouraged to say ” be quiet”.
    And we were also discouraged from using the word “hate” and using “strongly dislike”.

  2. Well done, Frances! I grew up in Claxton, GA, (about as redneck as it gets and a population of only 2,500!) and we were not allowed to use the N word or shut up and my Mom considered the word hate worse than any cuss word! And you are right, Paula should have SHUT UP a long time ago! Thanks for writing this.

  3. Us yankees are happy to read your words Frances. Class and dignity have been around for a long, long time. It’s not something “new” we are all trying.

  4. Great post, Frances!
    It speaks to people being oriented to standards and commitments that are one’s own – and at the same time larger than oneself – as opposed to “what can I get away with?”

  5. Never, ever heard that word in my home growing up and I was raised in Tennessee. I made sure when I was raising my sons that word was considered an abomination. We have a lot of southern expression, but that was not one that any of my friends ever said.

  6. Same here, Frances. My parents were born in the 1920’s and raised in North Carolina. I never heard the N word cross their lips. My sister’s and I were all born in the 1950’s and raised in Carolina, Brazil and Texas and racial slurs were NOT tolerated. Neither was shut up or stupid allowed in our home. Also we can only take so many ya’lls before it becomes nauseating. Proud to call northwest Florida home now…Home of the emerald coast and sugar white sands.

  7. Frances,

    While I agree with your statements fully and was also brought up in a home that did not use that word, the point for me is that the lady told the truth. She must have known the harm that was coming, both to her and her family. That does not make the words that were said in the past acceptable, but I do respect her for telling the truth. I also respect the fact that she worked very hard for what she has achieved while overcoming many obstacles to do so.


  8. Ms. Frances, ma’am, God bless you, you hit the nail on the head. I grew up in Southern California and that word was just NOT used in our house. And absolutely, it came from a place of respect and manners. Something we could use more of today, in my humble opinion.

  9. Absolutely. I was born and bred in Richmond Virgina, capitol of the Confederacy, Old World, Old South, manners and all. “Nice” people had manners, which, as I was taught, are not arbitrary, but spring naturally from consideration of others. No one I knew said the N word – ever. Period, end of story. Or “shut up”, or even, “kids”. We were “children”. To quote my father, “Kids, are goats”. We were also taught to say “please”,”thank you”, as well as”Yes M’am” and “Yes Sir” to older people – of ANY color.

  10. I grew up in a racist household. My father didn’t say anything to my mother when she was ranting and raving about the French, Irish etc. However, the disgusting n word was never used. Even my mother knew some limits. Yes Paula was “honest”; did she think she was going to get a pass for unacceptable comments.

  11. The word was searingly taboo in my youth in Wilmington, NC, in the 50s and 60s. It was the worst thing anyone could say.

    At the same time, I think of those who would say it as poor and uneducated themselves, trying to find someone to be better-than. There was plenty of racism among the more well-to-do as well, those who knew better than to speak disrespectfully. Even the schools were racist, so those who used the crudest language were not alone in their bad behavior.

    What has happened to Paula Deen has surely provided her some badly needed education — and a cautionary tale for anyone else who might consider whispering the word.

    I’m hoping that she’ll still be able to have some kind of career and life after this. She’ll never escape it, but I do think some kind of second chance would be in order. I don’t think that a wrong word ought to mean permanent ruin, any more than attending a meeting that might have included Communists should have ruined careers in the 50s.

    Because I simply didn’t question the racist way of life back then, I’ll forever hold some doubts about my own current perception and judgment. I don’t think it’s right for Paula to be the scapegoat for that. It doesn’t cleanse our history.

    And thank you for providing this forum for the conversation, Frances.

  12. Dear Frances, “warned with the soap ” if we used the N-word, stupid, or shut up. Now that I think about it ,refusal to say Yes sir Yes Mam’n resulted also in a mouth washed with soap. Great post.

  13. Bravo, Frances. We weren’t allowed to say that word either — OR shut up or even “I’m bored.” There was no excuse! And along with “kids are goats” my dad used to say “Dogs get mad, people get angry.” But it might be fair to say, in this case, that Paula Deen is mad!

  14. Well-how could I not comment on this one Frances-That word was unfortunately used ALOT in my house (mostly by my father) and I am VERY sensitive to it now–he still says it and I cringe every time–He is 80 and you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. The words not allowed in my house were ‘couch’ (sofa was the appropriate term), ‘drapes’ (draperies appropriate) and ‘bucks’ (five DOLLARS was appropriate)…I write this to show the oddness of priority in what is important…Thanks for posting A

  15. I grew up in Alabama and the “n” word was not used or tolerated in our house. I was taught by my Southern parents that all people are equal, but I was also taught forgiveness. Paula Deen has apologized, even though it will be hard to forget, I can forgive.

  16. Im. From SW Ga. “Country” we did not use those words either…but I know back then you did use the words negro and colored…which was just as hurtful…I also know that families that did not use the “N” word looked down on the lower class white people who did…that too is a prejudice …I went to NYC on a scholarship when I was 15 yrs old…I have lived all over the world and I heard the N word everywhere…like racism it isn’t only in the south..I have never been a fan of Ms Deen….nevertheless that was many years ago. And even if she continues to be so crass…should we throw in prison ??? We still have the first amendment

  17. Frances, you are from the same south as I. That word was never, ever, ever allowed to be used in our house. NEVER. We were not allowed to use any derogatory comments regarding race or ethnicity. No matter a person’s background, all were treated with respect. Respect begets respect. Thank you for this blog post because I think in our current society we have forgotten about manners.

    1. NEVER NEVER NEVER…I could have been dispensed with but not the people who worked for us. They were good to us and we were good to them…respect.

  18. Grew up in Arkansas on a farm with only black tenents but never was the word used in our house–40’s and 50’s.

  19. What a mess! Growing up in the north, I never even heard the N word until I was in my 20s, but I must admit that was quite a few years ago and I guess I lived a very sheltered life in a Catholic school with the nuns.

  20. Frances, I so appreciate this column which stands apart from your normal focus on the elevation of the aesthetic. I was dismayed by the attention and excuses given to Paula Deen’s use of the “n” word. As you know, I grew up a multi-generational southern and, I am dismayed to say, the descendant of slave-holders but that word was ALWAYS frowned upon in my family and my social circles. It was viewed as disgustingly derogatory.

    Birmingham in the 60s was volatile but only a particular segment of our society found it tolerable to use such epithets and they were a group unto themselves – outlaws whose bigotry disgraced our city for the past 50 years. Most of us, black and white, have move past that as is evidenced by our slogan, Forward Birmingham, designed to memorialize the progress in our city 50 years after Bull Connor turned the hoses and dogs on our citizens and 50 years after the 4 girls were murdered as they attended church and Sunday School at 16th Street Baptist Church. Paula Dean’s apologist seem to have been stuck in that untenable, bygone era that has held us back for too long.

    Thanks again for your message which is right on point. No surprise you would not let this pass by unexamined.

    Your friend – Adele

  21. I am a native of Savannah and the exact age as Paula Deen as was raised to be respectful of all people. We called black people “colored people” when I was a child. The “n” word was only heard when used to describe someone who had done something EXTREMELY bad, but it was NEVER used in my home. My first exposure to the word being used in general language was when I taught middle school students in a public school that was a mix of lower class white children and black children from the inner city. The white children were called “White trash” by the black students who in turn called them the “n” word. There were quite a few fights generated by racially charged remarks. Many years later, I heard the word used daily by black students to describe each other. Once, when a student was killed by gunfire, a sign was painted on one of the walls in the halls of the school that stated, “RIP Poo Bear one fine N”. I was shocked, but the black principal put up bulletin board paper so the students could write their sentiments on it, not the walls. There were many other N words scribbled on that paper so it seemed quite acceptable to their own kind. I knew, however, that if I had used that word that I would probably be fired! Such is the state of racial affairs in Savannah. The word is never used in polite society by responsible adults. I cannot vouch for Paula, but she has done much to promote Savannah in the last 10 years or so. She has been a hardworking and productive member of our community. Paula was honest in her deposition for a lawsuit that lacks merit and has been blown out of proportion by the media. I support her and her family.

  22. I am from a very very small rural town, Bethel,( 12 miles from Tarboro, NC )I was. Born in 1951, with much older parents. The N word was NEVER uttered in my home, and I was taught to respect everyone , and accept their ethnicity and religious affiliation. We all have a certain amount of prejudice that runs through our veins , no matter what part of the country you live in. Cheers!

  23. I grew up in the North and at 17, went to college in southern Virginia. Much to my shock and horror, I heard the many, many southern ladies enrolled there using the “N” word endlessly…and these ladies were all from fine families, or so I assumed. I was young and impressionable, but NEVER impressed with this language usage. I feel for Paula Deen although I’m not a fan. I too believe the press has blown this story way out of proportion. What a world we live in!

  24. Baloney! All of you. I grew up in Durham, NC, went to school with and had friends in all socioeconomic backgrounds. The word was everywhere. Sure it was frowned upon and not allowed to be spoken in many homes, but it still got used. Mothers would tell you that nice people didn’t use words like that, but they did. It may have been only on occasion, even by some self absorbed little debutante that was mad at the family maid, but it was used.

    I agree that the word is a slur, but let’s face it, so is “red neck”, “cracker” and “mother-f__ker”. What could be more disrespectful than “MF”? I cringe when I hear it. To the recipient, you have just been accused of fornicating with your own mother. Seriously, what is worse? Sadly, my personal observation is that this term occupies a colossal percentage of many people’s vocabulary, particularly young blacks. If you don’t like that observation, tough, it’s true.

    Paula Deen is a southern girl who grew up like many of us, perhaps a little harder. Maybe she had a few foul mouthed alcoholics in her family and learned some not so nice words that she repeated like the rest of us did. Maybe she wasn’t a Pi Phi or Tri-Delt or attend Hollins or Chatham Hall. She may wear too many diamonds and work the drawl too much. She’s human, hard working and dragged herself up from some tough circumstances. She also admitted to something that most will not and I admire her honesty. Should she be punished and vilified, losing everything she’s worked for by being honest about a past indiscretion and apologizing for it? Absolutely not.

    I’m personally done with the Food Network, Smithfield Foods, ABC,NBC,CBS and anyone else who condones this ridiculous witch hunt.

    Keep chatting about lambrequins, epergnes and period antiques that your mother’s had, but leave Paula Deen alone.

    1. Sam, Good for you! Maybe since we grew up in the same neighborhood I know more of what you speak. I think Paula was/is trying to right her wrongs & has been hung out to dry with no trial. She is a hard working human who made allot money for white folks who threw her under the bus without a chance. I def do not like the word or use it & am quick to call anyone on the carpet who does & yes I do hear it used here in Durham & in Richmond where I lived for 32 years from white folks far wealthier & with more education than myself. Glass houses people!

  25. Thank you, and thanks to The Food Network for having a zero tolerance policy, regardless of a well rated television show.

    Perhaps Ms. Deen will, in her remorse, focus on educating Americans to improve our national diet and to reduce incidence of diabetes.

  26. Hi Frances, as a black immigrant in this country I could understand why you see the need and have the courage to post this article. It’s very enlightening to reinforce that there are homes in the South where respect and equality was taught. Because of stereo types I think you did some justice to the people from the South who were taught self respect in their homes. I think it would be a good idea if you could expand on this article and possible get it into larger publication for a wider audience. As a black person I know what stereo type feels like. Personally I am blessed because I have not had any overt race problems. My closest experience was with two lower class white people. Good article

  27. True,anything but a Southern tradition. It was a bad word…if used, Tabasco or Soap in the mouth!

  28. Bravo! I have been dismayed at the number of people on Facebook are championing the cause to “bring back Paula!” She is an anachronism, and is a poor spokeswoman for today’s South.

  29. We were never allowed to use a racial slur in our home but I can’t say that one wasn’t occasionally used. I also can’t say that our mouths didn’t have the taste of Ivory soap afterwards. Also, we were taught the importance of an apology and the act of forgiveness.

  30. In the early ’60’s, when I was about five years old, we traveled to the South with my family and my Ohio Grandma. We stopped in a lovely restaurant for brunch on the terrace. It was a very hot and humid summer day. A waiter there was dressed in an elegant long-sleeved velvet uniform. He was the first African American I had ever seen. I was curious about him and said to Grandma, “He must be so hot in those heavy clothes.” My Grandma said, “No, he’s colored. They don’t get hot.” I accepted that at first until I noticed that he had trails of sweat running down his face. I knew at that moment that my dear Grandma who I loved deeply was WRONG. I can remember that moment with such clarity to this day. It was the day I realized that all of us are the same regardless of our skin color and that even the best of us can be wrong sometimes.

  31. South Carolinian here-born in ’41 and lived here all my life and don’t remember being aware of the N-word until college. I was also limited in the use of some words like stupid and shut up, etc., growing up and I was very hard on my own children about using words that were hurtful or could be misconstrued about their intentions. We worked on replacing unacceptable words with those that convey intelligence rather than ignorance.

    I don’t remember hearing that word being used until 1958 which was my Freshman year at Winthrop College. We were sequestered in the dorms the afternoon the Freedom Riders decided to sit-in at the lunch counter in McCrorey’s Drug Store in downtown Rock Hill with heavy national publicity. I remember some student in my dorm using that word that afternoon. Later in college, I was told I danced like a N—. but to a shagger that was an extreme compliment!

    I guess I lived a very sheltered life until then, but I chose to go into teaching and by then, I was confronted daily in the classroom with trying to mediate all manner of word usage, signals, tolerance, differences and tensions. As an art teacher, there were times I was tense about discussing the use of the pigment black and its effects on the other colors in the palette. At least one student would be offended and sometimes belligerent about anything I said about black or white.

    I might be paranoid, but all the mounting media sniping and the blogging and tweeting about Paula makes me feel as if folks are saying)”That Stupid Blonde Southerner is just showing up as what they all are, BIGOTS” I felt that was what motivated Frances to deviate from her usual format. We’re not all like that. Of course, we don’t really know if Paula is “like that” whatever “that” is!

    I feel like Southerners are fair game for having to PROVE or DEFEND ourselves. I live in a retirement and tourist area and we certainly have our share of criticism from visitors and new retirees on “how they did it up north.” Most parents who move here want their children moved “up” to higher grades because they assume our schools are so bad. A local beach council passed an ordinance that any new home must plant at least 3 trees, but the Palmetto tree didn’t count! Our state tree is not an acceptable tree and we are going to build a forest so that only the front row has a beach view! OMG, you won’t believe the letters to the Editor when we have a controlled burn on forest land. Our newcomers had rather their house burn down in an untreated forest than rouse up their asthma once a year!

    Paula Deen took her blond southern self and built a small empire on it and will lose it over a word. Didn’t happen to Mel Gibson when he went on a drunken rant. Didn’t happen to Martha Stewart when she broke the law. How many other examples do we know?

    Thanks, Frances, for all your posts, but for this one, especially. It’s always good to collect on’e thoughts about a subject. I’m 72 years old and didn’t even hear the N-word until my teens, dealt with it daily ( or the surrounding tension) for 37 years of teaching, but, before I retired, was, affectionately, called one by a former black student. However, I never lost my career by using the word, like Paula Deen.

    1. You make good points but I take exception to the Gibson/Stewart comment. Mel Gibson is all but gone from film. Stewart went to jail,(some didn’t think the particular jail tough enough but it WAS jail). She gave up her position in her company for a time and has made a slow return. Paula can easily do the same if she plays it smart.
      My problem with all of this is the double standard,like you say……it’s complicated.

  32. I commented earlier, but feel the need to comment again after hearing Paula’s remark today: “I is what I is, and I’m not changing.” Oh, my. What an embarrassment to all of us who live in the South.

  33. Beautifully said Frances!!
    We couldn’t say shut up in our home either. Not even to the dog! Good manners are never out of style, and she has none.

  34. Miss Frances! Fellow NC debutante,

    I loved the comments I read every one.
    I was once asked by a family friend’s maid if I knew what the N word meant. I said no. she said it was someone who was low down common and dirty. She asked if I had ever herd or saw her do something low down common and dirty? I was only 8 years old ; I replied that most people don’t have 4 babies w/out a husband. She started to cry/yell so I ran! I hid from her because I was afraid she would hit me. 2 weeks later I was playing w/my friend in a room and couldn’t escape. I hid under the bed but she pulled me out. Terrified, “I know Jesus will forgive me so would u forgive me ” popped out of my frightened mouth. she forgave me for hurting her (w/a truth) We hugged and I still hug her when I see her at my friend’s Dad’s house where she still “works”. That’s my N word story and I didn’t even say it! My point is, it’s complicated!

  35. Excuse me fine ladies of impeccable up bringing…
    Somewhere it is printed “those without sin cast the first stone”

    One has to be careful of those fine crinolines not becoming tarnished with piety.
    Anyone suffering moral indigestion… is a short step from fame to infamy!

  36. Oh, please. I’m a Southerner of mixed race born to parents of differing mixed races and we all know darned well *saying* the N-word has absolutely nothing to do with the polite brand of Southern exclusion I’ve been entreated to my entire life, a life that started way after signs and segregation ended.

    I’ve been called the n-word along with white b!tich and a host of other derogatory terms but honey, the stuff that hurt the most was the polite, Bless Her Heart exclusion that made sure I had no friends or that white friends I made quickly dumped me as their parents decided I wasn’t good enough. Or having friends include me in a circle because it made THEM feel good about not being racist, or putting up with the patronizing commentary that assumed my half black father was poor when he was a dentist.

    Nice try but I’m not buying it. Southerners, Northerners and everyone else can pile on, resist the brush or whatever you want to call it. I know no one likes someone who is different.

    1. Dear Bunnie,

      I did not reply to most of the comments on that post because they came so fast and furious I thought I’d just let readers run with it. But I’d like to reply to yours.

      It sounds as if you have been deeply wounded in your growing up. I only hope that now in your adult life you are able to surround yourself with friends and family who see you for the beautiful person you doubtless are. I hope that now, today, as a contributor to your circumstances, you are able to create joy in your life and to be a force for good in your life and in the lives of others. As much as the cruelty of others can be hurtful, it is also a powerful teacher. Would that some of life’s lessons could be learned more gracefully.

      Thank you for your honesty and for your effort in sharing a painfully personal but tragically not unique experience.

      Blessings and light,

  37. “Boy, I’m glad I’M not tarred by the same brush all the time.” Taggart Snyder, white, Christian, conservative.

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