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Paula Deen: "I would not have fired me"

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TODAY Show host Matt Lauer and Paula Deen TODAY Show host Matt Lauer and Paula Deen

(NBC) - In an emotional interview, her first since she admitted having used racial epithets, Paula Deen tearfully told TODAY's Matt Lauer Wednesday that she is not a racist; that as a businesswoman, she does not think her firing from Food Network was the right decision, and that she was unsure whether the N-word was offensive to black people.

When asked by Lauer whether she was a racist, Deen replied simply, "No." Then she added, "I believe that … every one of God's creatures is created equal. I believe that everyone should be treated equal, that's the way I was raised and that's the way I live my life"

When Lauer asked if Deen, who was let go from the Food Network Friday, believed her offense was a fireable one, Deen said it was not.

"Would I have fired me? Knowing me? No," she said. "I am so very thankful for the partners I have who believe in me."

The fallout from Deen's admission that she's used the N-word and had considered throwing a "plantation-style" wedding – which came to light during a legal deposition on May 17 and went public early last week – was fast and furious. By Friday, Food Network announced it was canceling Deen's contract, after she failed to appear for a scheduled interview with Lauer and started posting a series of strange apology videos on YouTube.

By Monday, Smithfield Foods terminated its partnership with her, and QVC, Sears and Target were all reevaluating their relationship with the Southern star, who raked in $17 million in 2012 through all her ventures and was the fourth highest paid chef last year, according to Forbes.

During the deposition, Deen was asked about racist jokes, and she responded that she could not determine what offended various groups of people. Lauer specifically asked her if she knew that the N-word was offensive to black people.

"I don't know, I have asked myself that so many times," Deen said. "I go into my kitchens and hear what these young people are calling each other...it's very distressing for me. I think for this problem to be worked on these young people are gonna have to take control and start showing respect for each other."

Fans and chefs have been divided over Deen's comments and the consequences she's faced. Thousands of people have posted on Food Network's Facebook page to defend the celebrity chef, while others, including "Bizarre Foods" host Andrew Zimmern, have applauded the company for taking swift action.

Former Food Network colleagues like Aaron McCargo, Jr., who is black, voiced support for Deen via social media. "Paula has always been very helpful and supportive throughout my career and as her friend, I'm saddened to see that she is going through a tough time right now," McCargo wrote on Facebook Monday. "We are all human and we should never be quick to judge anyone..."

For some Southern chefs, the real tragedy is that this scandal has rocked the region in the court of public opinion.

"To say things like, ‘that's just the way it's always been' is not only inaccurate, but far worse, it is lazy," wrote Louisville, Ky.-based chef Edward Lee, who blends Korean and Southern traditions at his restaurant, 610 Magnolia. "The South that I live and travel in is one that is buoyed by diversity, acceptance, generosity and love — the people and kitchens of the American South have enriched my life with culture and respect."

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