Many of us who pay even the slightest bit of attention to popular news and culture have heard of Brad Paisley and LL Cool J’s Accidental Racist song. Whenever controversial issues are raised in media, oftentimes the initial reaction is passion and raw emotions. This is of course understandable – controversial issues are controversial for a reason. Many times they get to the heart of our souls; they go deep into the center of our fundamentals as human beings and they demand that we once again re-evaluate our positions on the things that matter most to us. And while I believe passion matters, I have found that it can cloud one’s ability to reason. So it is in this spirit I write this article – to hopefully add another voice to the continuous national conversation on race as I believe this song has done.
Firstly, consider the title – Accidental Racist. This connotes that being a racist is something that happens by chance and that one does not make a decision to be racist. I think many of us would like to think racists are people far from us, people who have made a firm decision to hate non-Whites. And yes, I use non-Whites because while non-Whites can be racist towards Whites, institutionally and historically that kind of racism has been insignificant. The reality is that racism in this country is something that people have to unlearn. This is not to say that people are born racists, it’s to say that from the institutions, the systems, the media, and the interactions that exist in this country – being an accidental racist is simply being in this country, especially if you are born here. And no, it’s not just the people in the South. Every inch of this country teaches that White is good and better and best. Most racists are accidental racists and most people are not aware of it.
Let us now consider some arguably inflammatory lyrics from the song. “When I put on that t-shirt, the only thing I meant to say is I’m a Skynyrd fan” and “The red flag on my chest somehow is like the elephant in the corner of the south. And I just walked him down into the room.” I think issues of symbolism are apparent here. The reality is for most historians, and both Whites and non-Whites, you cannot separate the Confederate flag from a past that is filled with the shame of slavery. To try to separate the two is to simply insult history and to render it irrelevant. And when you insult history, you do not have a clear perception of the present. That past and that red flag is in many ways representative of the racial issues and inequalities that are still evident today. So that t-shirt that has innocuous intentions becomes a symbolism of a past that was proud of those inequalities. One must understand the consequence of this on those who faced the brunt of racial inequalities.
“I’m proud of where I’m from (If you don’t judge my gold chains) But not everything we’ve done(I’ll forget the iron chains) “ are other lyrics that caught my eye. From the point of view of a Southerner, why shouldn’t he or she be proud of where they are from? Even in an imperfect history, I don’t think anyone should take away a Southerner’s affinity for their homeland. My real problem with these lyrics are with the lines, “I’ll forget the iron chains” sung by LL Cool J. The iron chains should not be forgotten. The problem with human beings as a species is that we suffer from historical amnesia and we are prone to making the same mistakes as individuals, and as whole societies. Slavery is and will forever be a part of this country’s antiquity. More importantly, the legacy and remnants of slavery are still with us today. To ignore that fact would be a disservice to undoing the wrongs of the past, and an affront against the people whose blood was shed trying to pursue a more equal country.
Beyond picking apart each individual line in the song, the general sense I gather from the song is that Brad Paisley is performing an honest account of how he sees America’s racial matters from the perspective of a White Southerner. LL Cool J counters that to some degree, performing as a Black man who responds to that perspective. The truth is I am glad that these artists came together to give an honest perspective of how different people experience race and racial concerns. On that level, I don’t think they can be faulted. I also think that as the song implies, we cannot berate individuals for what their ancestors may or may not have done hundreds of years ago. However, I think what can be critiqued is the symbolism, actions, and potential consequences of the reality of some of their lyrics should they be performed in real life. I think what can be critiqued is that people sometimes fail to see how their words and actions are racist because of their privilege. I think what must be critiqued is that racism cannot be oversimplified – it is a real and complex experience and one that is upheld by institutions, media, and interactions. Anyone who experiences it cannot and does not simply forget it.
The truth is maybe Brad Paisley is an accidental racist as he sings. But maybe not any more than when White people who I know, who I may even be friends with, say things to me – a black female – such as, “You’re not like other black people,” or “You talk like a White person,” simply because I do not conform to their own perception of what constitutes a black person. I, for one, am glad this song was made because it is an opportunity to talk about the reality of race and racial matters that people sometimes like to pretend don’t exist. It is an opportunity to have a better understanding of where all people are coming from, and to be real with each other about how race plays a role in this nation, for better or for worse. So in the midst of our passions, let us not miss out on an opportunity to educate each other about things that actually matter.