Paula Deen and Serena: 2 of a Kind

Paula Deen (Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images); Serena Williams (Julian Finney/Getty Images)
Paula Deen (Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images); Serena Williams (Julian Finney/Getty Images)

(The Root) — If she who is without sin should cast the first stone, then perhaps she who is with sin should just shut up, taking her rock and heading home before the walls come crumbling down around her. Nowhere does this modern twist on the oft-quoted Bible verse seem more apt than in the recent controversy surrounding professional glass-house dwellers Serena Williams and Paula Deen.

The two women couldn't be more different — or, as it turns out, alike. There are nearly three decades between the superstars. One makes her living serving on the tennis court, and the other serves Southern comfort on a platter. Serena grew up in Southern California and Paula in southern Georgia. Who would have thought that both women would not so secretly harbor some not-so-kosher views?

It began last week when Williams commented on the Steubenville, Ohio, rape trial in a Rolling Stone profile. The reporter had not asked Williams' opinion directly; instead the news flashed across a television screen the two were watching, and the athlete offered up her obviously unfiltered opinion:

Do you think it was fair, what they got? They did something stupid, but I don't know. I'm not blaming the girl, but if you're a 16-year-old and you're drunk like that, your parents should teach you: Don't take drinks from other people. She's 16. Why was she that drunk where she doesn't remember? It could have been much worse. She's lucky. Obviously I don't know, maybe she wasn't a virgin, but she shouldn't have put herself in that position, unless they slipped her something; then that's different.


Another column (or 10) could be dedicated to the magnitude of wrong encapsulated in Williams' statement. But victim blaming — the perpetuation of rape culture by focusing on the injured party's culpability as opposed to that of those who actually broke the law — is nothing new.

Williams, who by all accounts grew up in a conservative Jehovah's Witness household, was probably regurgitating what her parents and peers passed down. I heard as much and more around my grandmother's kitchen table as a teenager. The same warnings and advice were handed out to me from uncles and aunts before I went off to college in the big city. The messages were the same: Beware of the big, bad rapist bogeyman, and don't put yourself in a situation where he can get you.

Problem is, rapists are not killer whales. They don't just hang out in the deep end — dark corners, winding alleys or windowless vans. Avoiding the beach altogether won't stop another predator from getting to you. Lions, tigers and bears abound. So, the evolving wisdom goes, why not shift the red alerts to those who rape instead of those who happened to get in their crosshairs?

In the week since the airing of Williams' dirty-thought laundry, she has released not one, but two apologetic statements on her official website. The first was worded carefully, seeming to still semi-cling to her original beliefs that both parties were somehow at fault:

What happened in Steubenville was a real shock for me. I was deeply saddened. For someone to be raped, and at only sixteen, is such a horrible tragedy! For both families involved — that of the rape victim and of the accused.


Later Williams thankfully delved even deeper:

I also want to extend an apology to the millions of sexual assault victims in America whose pain could have been compounded by my inappropriate remarks. Rape and all forms of sexual assault are completely unacceptable, no matter the circumstances. Sexual assault perpetrated against women and men is never acceptable and *never* the fault of the victim.


One would hope that the evolution of Williams' statements is sincere. That she actually sat down with someone from the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network or someone from Men Can Stop Rape. That she educated herself beyond popular misinformation and truly learned something.

The same thing goes for embattled cook Paula Deen, who in sworn testimony during a court deposition admitted to using the n-word, possibly making insensitive racist jokes and absolutely having some weird Gone With the Wind wedding fantasy.


In several self-produced YouTube videos, Deen admitted to having made some mistakes in her life, offered her "sincerest apologies" to those she hurt and emphasized that "inappropriate and hurtful language is totally, totally unacceptable." Coming to her defense, Deen's sons said, "Our mother is one of the most compassionate, good-hearted, empathetic people that you'd ever meet."

The thing is, both pictures painted of Deen could easily hang in the same house. She could be the sweetest and Southern-est jovial Mrs. Claus stereotype, quick to offer a needy fellow a free meal with a smile, and then use that same mouth to tell a racist joke. Just as Williams, arguably one of the most famous female athletes and role models to young girls currently competing, can accept her second French Open title en français and weeks later say something so hurtful about a young girl.


It isn't shocking for a celebrity to say something politically incorrect or downright ignorant or even dangerous. The familiar flowchart from screw-up to salvation always has an "I'm sorry" in there somewhere. But what would truly be surprising is if, after all the prerequisite groveling — before fans, sponsors and TV networks — they realized that there was a lot of growing left to do.

Helena Andrews is a contributing editor at The Root and author of Bitch Is the New Black, a memoir in essays. Follow her on Twitter.


Helena Andrews is a contributing editor at The Root and author of Bitch Is the New Black, a memoir in essays. Follow her on Twitter.

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