Is asking the African-American chef you hired to work at your sprawling dude ranch to start making "black people food" a super-racist request, or is it nothing more than a bit of discourtesy and insensitivity?
That is the question being asked in a federal lawsuit currently under way against Madeleine A. Pickens, the wealthy philanthropist and ex-wife of billionaire energy tycoon T. Boone Pickens, who is being accused of racial discrimination by Armand Appling, an African-American chef who worked for Pickens. Appling says he was fired back in 2014 after complaining that the ranch was a hostile work environment. He says the firing was retaliation; she says she may have said rude things, but her comments were not racially motivated.
Appling was recruited by Pickens to cook at her Mustang Monument Wild Horse Eco-Resort, a 900-square-mile dude ranch in rural Nevada. He had previously worked at the Del Mar Country Club in California, which Pickens also owns. The Nevada ranch bills itself as a place to enjoy an "American Safari"; its website says it is a "foundation for the preservation and protection of America's wild horses." You can rent a teepee there for $1,650 a night, or stay in a "safari cottage" for a cool $1,950.
In addition to alleging that Pickens asked him to cook "black people food"—specifically fried chicken, barbecue ribs, and cornbread—Appling alleges that Pickens called one black employee her "bull" or "ox," a remark Pickens' lawyer claims was a compliment of their strength and "was not accompanied by any overtly racial slurs." Appling also claims Pickens fired another black member of the kitchen staff for having "too much personality" and not "fit(ing) the image" of the ranch.
US District Judge Miranda Du, the presiding judge, is not yet convinced that Pickens' alleged actions amount to actionable examples of racial discrimination. During a hearing last week in Reno, Judge Du stated that Appling's lawyers have yet to prove the outward racial hostility required to win the civil rights claim, but gave Appling until the January 13 to amend and refile his complaint. "It takes a lot to prove these allegations," she told Pickens' lawyer, Willie Williams.
Meanwhile, Pickens' lawyers say even if all the allegations are true, her remarks—at worst—"reflect a non-racial personality conflict and amount to discourtesy, rudeness or lack of sensitivity." Dora Lane, Pickens' lawyer for the case, told MUNCHIES the following: "We deny Mr. Appling's allegations and expect to be vindicated in court."
As Paula Deen can tell Pickens, the public relations fallout from a lawsuit like this one can be punishing, even if it is ultimately dismissed. Sometimes, rudeness and lack of sensitivity doesn't go unpunished.