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.
LL Cool J’s last line, “But I see that red flag and I think you wish I wasn't here,” does hint to a real reaction one might have at seeing something racially offensive. But the rest of his rap compares his hip-hop clothing to Paisley’s Confederate flag T-shirt, and promises not to judge Paisley's character. And that’s not to mention the comparison between the rapper’s gold chains and the iron chains used to shackle slaves, which is f&*king ridiculous -- "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)" -- and dismissive of the emotional “chains” with which racism, in modern society, still shackles us. The everyday reminders of who we were, and what they still think we are.
The comparison of manacles to jewelry makes no sense at all, but it does point to another straw-man argument commonly used when people discuss racism in Western society. The hip-hop attire that LL Cool J mentions -- gold jewelry, baggy jeans, a do-rag -- has no historical meaning that symbolizes racial discrimination directed to white, or any non-black, folks.
What this clothing does represent is the concerted effort to perpetuate an urban fashion created from cultural pride, to symbolize and celebrate hip-hop culture -- a culture that has been co-opted by non-blacks, and a culture that does not overtly represent racial discrimination -- including the disfigurement, rape or murder, institutional and/or systemic discrimination of whites by African-Americans.
These things are not equal to each other. The wearing of hip-hop clothing simply does not mean the same thing as the wearing of a Confederate flag.
I also found it interesting that Paisley brought up Lynyrd Skynyrd’s use of the Confederate flag. The band has made it publicly known, even just last year, that they well understand what the flag conjures, and that their usage of the flag has brought some undesirables to their fan base:
"It became such an issue about race and stuff where we just had it in the beginning because we were Southern, and that was our image back in the '70s and late '60s ... but I think through the years, people like the KKK and skinheads and people kind of kidnapped the Dixie or Rebel flag from the Southern and the heritage of the soldiers," explained guitarist and sole original band member Rossington. "We didn’t want that to go to our fans or show the image like we agreed with any of the race stuff or any of the bad things.”
So, last year, the band removed the flag from their live performances -- but after fans complained, they brought it back. The members of Lynyrd Skynyrd have to realize that, while I’m sure that they have good intentions, they have conceded to those people whose fervent bloodlust to be reminded of the “good ‘ol days” means that they don’t really care whose blood was spilled over that flag. Commerce over conscience, I guess.
It would be unrealistic to assume that Paisley’s invitation to LL Cool J to appear on his song meant that the rap could be anything that the rapper wanted it to be. What could have been quite interesting ended up a senseless pander, especially to those who feel that African-Americans are to “blame” for past injustices. Quite frankly, I’m angry with LL Cool J, who, in his younger (and more profitable) days, seemed more self-righteously angry at social injustice than he appears to be on this single, taking on this silly, neutered character.
But one message from this song is quite clear: Paisley did a stellar job at symbolizing how far we have to go in healing the wounds caused by not only the past, but also living within the present. In this incredibly misinformed song, he unwittingly showed how pervasive racial ignorance can be.
Image: © Gerry Maceda/ZUMAPRESS.com
Contributing Editor - Race, Ethnicity & Culture
Blog: Writing is Fighting: www.lainad.typepad.com
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