“Accidental Racist” or Brad Paisley’s Birthday Present to Me
My birthday present came a little early this year, and I didn’t even know it at the time. It came in the form of song, which is not surprising given my obsession with music. On Monday a fellow social psychologist posted the song “Accidental Racist” on Facebook. At first blush, I blushed. LL Cool J, how could you? As the days wore on and the song received a lot of attention, from academics to musicians to comedians to everyday folk, my thoughts on the song became more and more clear. And finally, on the day that IS my birthday, I’ve finally realized just how much of a gift it really is.
Two things make this present so special for me: 1) Thoughts on race in the U.S. hardly ever appear as bluntly as they do in this song, at least not in a genre like country, and 2) we hardly ever get to hear from the majority group their thoughts on race. And as happy as this makes me (I don’t have to do so much of the heavy lifting to figure out what this song is saying about race) I’m almost speechless about the information I’ve been given access to. Almost.
Let’s break down why this song, as an EXAMPLE of what many White Americans think about race and not necessarily how it will AFFECT thoughts about race, is problematic:
Slavery is Worth Remembering
The premise of the song is that the main character, a Souther White man, is wearing a t-shirt with the confederate flag, which he hopes the Black guy working at Starbucks doesn’t take as a sign that he’s someone who wished slavery was still around. Of course he doesn’t think slavery should still exist, it’s just that he happens to like a band that uses (used) the flag. And besides, it’s really just a symbol of his Southern pride, not a comment on slavery or his views on race.
One of the assumptions that this song could not exist without is that slavery is in the distant past, and we need to get over it. Paisley’s lamenting that he’s not proud of everything the south has done, that we’re still “fightin’ over yesterday,” and LL Cool J’s “if you don’t judge my gold chains, I’ll forget the iron chains,” contribute to the idea that slavery is something we CAN forget. And this is a sentiment we hear a lot. As Louis CK says: “Every year White people add 100 years to how long ago slavery was. I hear educated people say ‘slavery was 400 years ago.’ It was 140 years ago. That’s two 70-year-old ladies living and dying back to back.” Not only was slavery not that long ago, but the effects of slavery can still be seen in our country today. The wealth gap between Whites and Blacks (for every dollar of wealth a Black family has, a comparable White family has 10) rests a good amount on the accumulation of wealth that happened when Blacks were either someone else’s property or were denied property within the law (I’m looking at you Jim Crow).
But of course, remembering that slavery existed and that it was wrong means having to put the blame on someone, and White people in the south are so over having to apologize for mistakes their forefathers made. In a region of the country where family loyalty and American pride are so important, it makes sense that remembering slavery is so difficult. But it doesn’t have to be. We can remember slavery the way we remember the Holocaust: it happened, it was shitty, let’s not let it happen again. Because that’s important: slavery (and something like slavery) is not an event that exists in the distant past alone. During WWII we had internment campus where thousands of innocent Japanese Americans were kept imprisoned because Americans assumed they could be spies. Today, immigrants work long, hard hours and cannot complain because even though they keep our food costs low and do the work the average American will NOT do we call them “illegal” and deny them the right to a fair wage and decent working conditions. Unfair treatment of an entire group of people is ALWAYS possible, given the right circumstances, and we must remember slavery so that we can avoid those circumstances like the plague.
Racism =/= Slavery ONLY
But here’s the other thing. Slavery in the United States, just because of it’s obvious unfairness, is not the only form of racism there is. I mean, yes, if you come at me saying that you think slavery wasn’t all that bad I’m going to call you a racist. To your FACE. But racism now exists in many more insidious and subtle ways. So the Black guy at Starbucks might not think you’re a racist for your red flag, but he might think you’re a racist if you didn’t vote for Obama simply because he’s Black (or you voted for the other guy simply because he’s White). Or when you think a young, Black man reaching in his pocket MUST have a gun, especially if he’s wearing a hoodie. Or when you see nothing wrong when you hear the number of Blacks in prison far outpaces the percentage in the US population. Or when you assume a Black college student was raised in the poor, inner city.
Research has shown that one of the reasons Black and White relations are so tense is that Whites tend to focus on how far we’ve come (“Look, we don’t own slaves anymore! We’re awesome!”) but Blacks focus on how far we need to go (“I have a dream…”). This song is so clear in that it focuses on how far we’ve come, but many Black Americans don’t see it that way. Which leads me to LL..
Having a “Black Friend” Does Not Make it Okay
Ta-Nehisi Coates over at the Atlantic made the point that choosing one Black voice to represent all Black perspectives was actually a sign of racism itself. He wonders why Paisley didn’t choose to work with a rapper that has already said many insightful things about race within their own music (Mos Def, Talib, KRS-ONE) but the choice of LL, and the lyrics that are included in the song, are far from accidental.
LL Cool J is “the convenient thug” in this song. While the country lyrics serve to give us the perspective of the White southern man who wants to forget slavery and therefore erase all potential that he could be labeled a racist accidentally, LL’s presence on the track serves to confirm to White listeners that Paisley’s perspective is completely legitimate. His character is dressed in baggy jeans, wearing gold chains, who doesn’t want to be judged by his attire. In return for this lack of judgment he is willing to forget slavery. This character lets listeners believe that racism only exists when one person judges another negatively based on arbitrary items, like do-rags and jewelry.That this is the way that Blacks are chosen to be represented in the song (as a “thug”) is racist, not that his voice is the only one represented. As I stated before, racism is much more complicated than this song makes it seem. In a country where a White man with a felony on his record is more likely to receive a call for a job interview than a Black man with NO felony I think it’s slightly off to believe that it is simply a Black man’s ATTIRE that is being judged. Just because Paisley has a Black friend to back him up does not make his perspective the correct starting point for this conversation.
Which brings me to my last point…
Is this the conversation we want to have?
I am trying really hard to understand people’s comments on many of the articles I’ve read that “at least” this is a starting point for conversation. But is it a starting point for the kind of conversation we want to have? It’s like having someone say, “I’m willing to have a conversation about global warming…as long as we both agree it’s the dinosaurs’ fault.” And what are we having a conversation about? White, southern pride? Racism? Only “accidental” racism? The end of a conversation is completely dependent on where it begins, and if a conversation in America about race begins with the assumptions that racism is only the obvious kind and in the past, or that the current forms are simply due to individuals judging one another, then the solutions we come up with to deal with racism will be missing most of the issue itself. And that’s simply not a conversation I’m willing to have.