Why we shouldn't give Brad Paisley too much grief over the misguided song "Accidental Racist"
It’s so easy to dump on country star Brad Paisley and rapper L.L. Cool J. for their ill-considered collabo, “Accidental Racist.”
But for those of us who want to see more discussion across race and about prejudice, it might not be the best idea.
From the clumsy title to the ham-handed lyrics and confused sentiment, "Accidental Racist" is a cornucopia of well-meaning but totally oblivious comments on boosting understanding across race lines.
Paisley and Mr. J. draw a comparison between being offended at seeing a white person wear a rebel flag t-shirt – a symbol of the slavery-supporting South many have taken as a symbol of Southern pride – and assuming a black person is a thug because they wear a doo rag on their head.
In one of many cringe-inducing lines, L.L. assures “If you don’t judge my gold chains, I’ll forget the iron chains.”
Generous as it is for the NCIS: LA star to offer forgiveness for over 400 years of slavery in exchange for the right to dress like a member of Run DMC, I’m not sure that’s in his power. (In fact, that line reminded me of this sidesplitting SNL skit where Stevie Wonder and Frank Sinatra do a horribly brutal version of "Ebony and Ivory.")
But even as Twitter blew up with some hilarious parodies and commentary – film critic Richard Roeper called it “a big bowl of well-intentioned awful” – I want to give the country star a little credit for trying to talk about a difficult subject.
But let’s also be clear about why he got it mostly wrong.
When I tried to speak with Fox News Channel star Bill O’Reilly for my book Race-Baiter about why he called me that term, he responded by bringing up the controversy over his remarks on a visit to Sylvia’s Restaurant in Harlem.
He tried talking about enjoying the experience of eating in one of the country’s best-known black owned restaurants, but used such backhanded compliments that he offended at least as many people as he complimented.
Paisley made some of the same mistakes in his song, talking about wanting to understand the perspectives of non-white people while making no effort to actually do so himself.
Instead, he outsources that job to L.L. Cool J. – hardly considered the deepest thinker on these issues – in a move which feels as much like a marketing opportunity as a social experiment.
It would have been so much cooler for Paisley to talk with rappers who actually deal with such issues in their art; say, The Roots’ Black Thought or Common. But that might have meant talking with someone who could push him to think differently.
Paisley’s song really just wants people who hassle him for wearing Dixie flags to chill out. In exchange, he’ll ask country fans not to jump to conclusions about people who wear hip hop gear.
But the Confederate flag has been used a symbol for a lot of awful racism. Forget slavery; Confederate flags were flown at lynchings and displayed by Klan members attacking civil rights workers. Even now, the Confederate flag is used as a symbol by bigoted hate groups in America and across the globe.
Paisley’s song doesn’t acknowledge any of that, shrugging off the flag’s implications as “an old can of worms” and implying it is the same as a rap fan wearing gold chains; something which has little if any connection to anti-white genocide or anti-white bigotry.
That’s what we social/media critics call “false equivalence”; to make his argument, Paisley has to suggest two things are equal which really aren’t, minimizing the Dixie flag’s connection to historically brutal racism in the process.
The sad truth is, if Paisley wants to wear that flag on his chest, he has to accept that for many people, white and black, it stands as a symbol of centuries of bigotry and oppression stretching right up to the present day. And he has to want to wear it, anyway.
But that doesn’t make for a real inclusive-sounding song.
Paisley’s songs mentions Reconstruction, Southern pride, wearing a Dixie flag on his shirt and being a “proud rebel son,” but doesn’t similarly articulate how people who feel differently about the subject might feel. Even with L.L.’s brief contribution, that’s a pretty one-sided conversation.
In my book, I also talk about how racism is so vilified now, that people who know they have good morals don't believe they can enable prejudice or stereotypes. But that creates a huge blind spot where people can enable unfair ideas by not thinking about them closely enough; like minimizing the history of the Confederacy's roots in Slavery and anti-black bigotry to make their Southrn pride more platable.
Folks who feel the way O’Reilly did will look at the backlash Paisley is experiencing as proof that you can only talk about these subjects in “politically correct” terms without getting pilloried.
That’s why I suggest critics ease up on the insults and use "Accidental Racist" as the start of a better conversation.
If he really feels like a “white man…trying to understand what it’s like not to be,” I would think that’s something Paisley would recommend himself.