Brad Paisley's "Accidental Racism" Song: Sorry About That. Can I Have a Latte?

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Have you ever seen or heard something so bad that you thought that it was satire? And then, upon realizing that it’s not satire, you wish it was? On Monday, country singer Brad Paisley released “Accidental Racist,” the first single off his upcoming album, Wheelhouse (out April 9) to mixed -- no, cringe-inducing -- reviews.

Paisley has an impressive career and a beautiful voice, and it is not that the music itself is particularly bad, especially if you like modern country music. It is the lyrical content of the song that has drawn fire.

Many commenters on Twitter and Facebook took umbrage at Paisley’s passive-aggressive description of wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a Confederate flag. But what is most troubling to me is that, while I’m sure Paisley meant well, what he wrote and sang is exactly what is wrong with our society:

To the man that waited on me at the Starbucks down on Main, I hope you understand
When I put on that t-shirt, the only thing I meant to say is I'm a Skynyrd fan
The red flag on my chest somehow is like the elephant in the corner of the south
And I just walked him right in the room
Just a proud rebel son with an 'ol can of worms
Lookin' like I got a lot to learn but from my point of view

I'm just a white man comin' to you from the southland
Tryin' to understand what it's like not to be
I'm proud of where I'm from but not everything we've done
And it ain't like you and me can re-write history
Our generation didn't start this nation
We're still pickin' up the pieces, walkin' on eggshells, fightin' over yesterday
And caught between southern pride and southern blame

And LL Cool J’s pandering, Uncle Tom-ish rap? 

Check this out:

Dear Mr. White Man, I wish you understood
What the world is really like when you're livin' in the hood
Just because my pants are saggin' doesn't mean I'm up to no good
You should try to get to know me, I really wish you would
Now my chains are gold but I'm still misunderstood
I wasn't there when Sherman's March turned the south into firewood
I want you to get paid but be a slave I never could
Feel like a new fangled Django, dodgin' invisible white hoods
So when I see that white cowboy hat, I'm thinkin' it's not all good
I guess we're both guilty of judgin' the cover not the book
I'd love to buy you a beer, conversate and clear the air
But I see that red flag and I think you wish I wasn't here

In the song, LL Cool J takes on the character of an African-American man (who, I’m assuming, was the man waiting on Paisley at the Starbucks, and who apparently, in this scenario, gave Paisley some wicked side-eye). This fictional conversation in a fictional Starbucks is positioned to be one that could somehow be real. To be fair, to some it is a realistic account of a conversation that an ignorant white man and an incredibly forgiving black man might possibly have, in a perfect world.

But it’s not real.

What drives me -- and my multicultural collection of Facebook and Twitter friends -- nuts is Paisley's position, which is steeped in denial and white privilege. Both characters in this “conversation” are conceding a point. The white character is willing to admit that, by his wearing a flag that represents an era in which African-Americans were not only treated like chattel, but were raped, disfigured (some castrated), murdered, and denied their basic human rights, some people could justifiably be offended. The black character concedes that he should "let bygones be bygones" in his visceral reaction to the T-shirt.

These things are not equal to each other.

The old trope of “it wasn’t me” is commonly used to deflect casual racism. You can’t admit shame (or even discomfort) for wearing, saying, or doing something that conjures racism, and then defend your decision by saying that racism is someone else’s responsibility, or an artifact of history. To do so assumes that in this day, racism does not exist. Yes, the accounts of physical harm to random African-Americans are certainly not as prevalent today as they were in the days of Confederate flag-waving. But overt, systemic, institutional racial discrimination is alive and well.


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