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In the South, many fans willing to forgive Paula Deen

SAVANNAH, Ga.

The line of Paula Deen fans waiting for her restaurant here to open grew throughout the hot, muggy morning Saturday.

They discussed what they might select from the buffet inside The Lady and Sons, her wildly popular restaurant in the heart of Savannah.

But they also talked of boycotting the Food Network, which dropped their beloved TV chef on Friday after she awkwardly apologized for having used racial slurs and for considering a plantation-themed wedding for her brother, with well-dressed black male servants.

The predicament that Deen finds herself in began when a former employee -- a white woman who is now managing restaurants in Atlanta -- filed a discrimination lawsuit in March 2012. She claimed that racial epithets, racist jokes and pornography on office computers were common while she managed Uncle Bubba's Oyster House, one of the restaurants in Deen's empire. Forbes has estimated her net worth at $17 million.

Most of the diners in line on Saturday morning were white and more than ready to defend one of their favorite cooking stars. But at the very front was Nicole T. Green, 36, an African-American who said she had made a detour from a vacation in New Orleans specifically to show up in support of Deen.

"I get it, believe me," Green said. "But what's hard for people to understand is that she didn't mean it as racist. It sounds bad, but that's not what's in her heart. She's just from another time."

The strong reaction to Deen's pickle reflects a simple truth: Race remains one of the most difficult conversations to have in America. And here, where antiseptic nostalgia for the antebellum South is common, the conversation is even more complex. "The memory of slavery and Jim Crow and Civil Rights is still very much alive," said William Ferris, a University of North Carolina folklorist and an editor of the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. "We carry those burdens through our lives. How we deal with them measures who we are. It's always there lurking over our shoulders." Deen, 66, many say, did not carry her burden well. "Deen is inarticulate about race because she doesn't have to be articulate," said Roxane Gay, a writer who explored the cultural conditioning behind Deen's comments in Salon. "She hasn't had to have any critical awareness." But in other circles, the cultural outcry and Food Network's decision seemed overblown.

The Food Network's Facebook page swelled with Deen supporters who disagreed with the punishment meted out by network executives.

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