Thought #1: When I first saw the name of this song go across my Facebook feed a few weeks ago I didn’t know what to make it of it. I assumed, at first, that it was an unfortunate spoof or offensive rant. I was disinterested in either so disregarded it.
Thought #2: When I realized, some days later, that Accidental Racist was a song by Brad Paisley featuring L.L. Cool J., my curiosity got the best of me. When I listened to the song and read the lyrics I had back and forth feelings, at times finding it awkward but well meaning, at others feeling utterly offended and angry.
Thought #3: Can we talk about why this song is a problematic failure with good intentions?
Let me start by saying that I honor the spirit from which it was written. I get that we (as a nation) are ill-equipped to have these conversations publicly, and I can appreciate that in defense of the song Brad Paisley said, “what we’re trying to do is explore what happens when two people have a dialogue.”
I teach classes on diversity in the deep South so I am painfully aware of how difficult it is to have difficult dialogues, especially about race and racism (and difference in general). For example, while honesty and transparency is important, so is context and accountability.
L.L. said in an interview that some people had a shallow understanding and hyper-sensitivity (of the song’s lyrics). Hm… I don’t think that people of color (or any marginalized group for that matter) can be accused of having a shallow understanding of or hypersensitivity to racism. It is something we live with every single day of our lives. And I personally think it is irresponsible for anyone to try to police someone else’s feelings in situations like this (however you feel in response to discrimination: angry, sad, disillusioned, numb…is legitimate and justifiable). When you are constantly bombarded with offensive and dismissive attitudes and responses for simply existing, and when you are regularly exposed to racial micro and macroaggressions but then told, when you notice and/or acknowledge them, that you are overreacting…it is disrespectful (and this is true of those who experience discrimination on all fronts). We can do better. And this song could have done better.
Thought #4: I don’t understand how no one, not one person, white or black or brown heard the song in the studio and was like, “hmmmm….” I know that I don’t always fully think out/through everything I say before I say it, but damn. If the point of the song was to take someone else’s point of view, how did they miss the problems in what was being said? Did they not think to ask, say, one extra black person what they thought?
Thought #5: Most of the time if and when people talk about race they have intraracial conversations behind closed doors. It is considered taboo and impolite (two things that are rarely violated in the South) to have these discussions (about race and racism) out loud and in mixed company, even though those are the conversations that will instigate change (of thought and focus). So I can appreciate what Paisley and LL were trying to do. However, that does not give them a pass for doing it so badly. Hopefully, once the shock of the song wears off the intention behind it can be redeemable enough to spark important and necessary discussions about race and racism. I can appreciate the fact that they wanted to initiate dialogue about this open-secret topic, but unfortunately the conversations being had are less about how we can talk with and about difference and more about what is wrong with the song. What we need are some ways to redeem the intention of the song (what is right) without getting caught up in what is wrong with the song. We don’t have to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
To redeem the song and move to useful dialogue we have to admit a few things:
1) We are all socially conditioned to be prejudiced against difference. This includes race/ethnicity, ability, gender/sex, sexuality, age, standards of beauty, etc. And we have to consciously resist what we are taught (consciously and unconsciously, in our households and friend circles, media and music, etc.) about engaging people who are different from us. The tone of the song in some ways reminds me of the well-meaning racism of students, over the years, who have prefaced a racist comment or declaration by saying, “I’m not racist, but…” And that is what the song felt like, a half-assed apology, an excuse, a cop out. In most cases racism is not accidental (though you will be hard pressed to find someone who will openly admit to being racist, sexist, classist, etc.,) it is a purposeful measure of hate passed down like an inheritance. However, in some cases, I think racism (and other forms of discrimination against difference) is circumstantial (based on who you are, where you live, how you were taught). But if/when you know better, you do better! It starts with one conversation.
2) White privilege is a real thing, and because of that privilege it is not necessary for people of color to ever “walk in a white person’s shoes” to understand a white person’s perspective. The hegemonic, social, cultural, ubiquitous perspective is a white person’s perspective (to be exact, it is a white male Christian able-bodied, heterosexual, financially secure, educated perspective). As Leonard Pitts, Jr., explained in his article in the Miami Herald, blackness is not an alien position, it is simply different from whiteness. And pretending to not see color, and/or to say that being “like” someone is the only way to understand them is misguided. You can know and learn about someone’s experience by exposure (how do you think POC are so familiar with whiteness, we can’t help but “know” it). You don’t have to be marginalized to understand that privilege exists and it benefits some groups and not others. (I re-watched Another 48 Hours over the weekend and in it Eddie Murphy has a brilliant line in response to class disenfranchisement…he says, “if s*it were worth something, poor people would be born with no asshole”—I’m paraphrasing, but you get the point).
3) There are ways of having honest conversations that take responsibility for our pain and issues, that acknowledge our history and legacies, and that leave room to move forward. Forgetting and/or pretending the past didn’t happen is not the answer. Trading conditional forgiveness (if you don’t stereotype me for this, I won’t stereotype you for that) is not the answer. Victimizing (or victim-blaming) is not the answer. Listening (to people about their experiences) and believing them is a good start.
4) Paisley and LL don’t speak for all white and black people.
5) We should be having honest conversations about race in the fullness of its complexity, not picking and choosing the sanitized parts that make us feel most comfortable.
As per usual, the range of responses to the song mimic how people react to discussions of racial discrimination all the time. People are said to be “too sensitive” or too insensitive; we go from wanting to pretend it’s not relevant to making it more relevant than it supposedly deserves, and then people take sides with the race they identify with. We need to move past ambivalence and blame… this song gives us the opportunity to have some very transparent and visible conversations about race and racism in the South and the triggers attached to it. It can’t be about assuaging guilt, finding fault, or picking out who is to blame. It needs to be about acknowledgment, understanding, and talking it out. It is a conversation worth having on purpose, not by accident.