Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows what my position is on “intent” when it comes to things like racism and misogyny. Intent lies on an orthogonal axis to racism – someone doing something intentionally racist just adds bad intent to bad action. If we are of the opinion that racism is harmful in and of itself, we have to identify something as ‘racist’ or ‘not racist’ based on its own merits, regardless of whether the person “meant to”.
This appears to be a major sticking point for people. They have bought, either consciously or unconsciously, into the myth that racism is something perpetuated by “racists”, and that if someone didn’t mean to do it then it can’t really be racist – just “ignorant” or “an accident” or whatever euphemism they prefer. This myth has a lot of popular currency and is fairly ubiquitous within North American discussions of race. The problem, of course, is that people can be and are discriminated against based on their race in ways that have nothing to do with ill intent all the time. Demanding that intent be consubstantial with racism precludes us from taking any action against these kinds of racism.
In a stunning display of well-intentioned cluelessness (and what could be called willful ignorance), country star Brad Paisley has decided to step into the fray by teaming up with LL Cool J in a ballad called “Accidental Racist”. Here’s a sample:
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
To give the most generous interpretation possible, Brad Paisley is trying to convince the audience that people from the South simply do not know any better, and sometimes say or do things that seem racist, but are actually simply… a sign of how much they love Freebird, I guess. LL Cool J then comes to the mic to say… I don’t even know:
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
And then proceeds to follow up by saying that if Mr. Paisley won’t judge him for his gold chains, LL will forgive him for the iron chains. Yes. He actually says that.
Now there’s a lot of things I could say about this song. I could (and will) point out that slavery is not the only act of racism that the South has to be ashamed of; that white racism toward black people is not the inverse of black fear of white racist imagery; that most racism is ‘accidental’ and black people already know that; that conversating over race with people who are so pig-ignorant that they don’t know the previous facts is absolutely not going to be cleared up over a beer… this song alone could inspire a week’s worth of blogging.
What I will do instead is a) say that this song is stupid and it sucks, b) say to the “well at least he’s trying” crowd that I think this song is harmful, not merely ‘not helpful’, c) say to the “but Brad Paisley is a liberal” crowd that I am not evaluating him as a person* but rather recognizing that this song is an atrocity, and d) point to some responses that I think are brilliant and insightful.
The first of these comes courtesy of Miguel Centellas:
Here’s the thing that you just need to understand. The Confederate flag is a symbol of the Confederacy and what it stood for, not the traditions and values (like hospitality) of the South.
The Confederate flag was adopted only by the Confederacy. It doesn’t predate the Confederacy, and it stopped being used with the fall of the Confederacy. In fact, the flag was only rarely used in the Confederacy; it was the flag of the Army of Northern Virginia (Robert E. Lee’s army) and only later became associated with the entire confederacy. In fact, the “Confederate flag” you’re familiar with was never the official flag of the Confederacy.
So we’re left with an interesting historical juxtaposition. The Confederate flag was not widely used within the Confederacy, but is clearly identified with the Confederacy’s cause. And that flag had a boom in popularity starting in the 1950s. Coincidentally, the 1950s was the start of the modern US Civil Rights Movement. In other words, a symbol of the Confederacy (which will forever by identified with slavery) became popular in South at the same time as African-Americans began advocating for political and social equality.
To say that the Confederate flag is a reflection of “Southern Pride”, according to Centellas, filters the rich history of the South through a suspiciously specific lens – a lens that includes that as a symbol of racial resentment, having no real other historical relevance.
The second is from one of my favourite writers, Ta-Nehisi Coates:
The du-rag/red-flag line Paisley cites at the end belongs to LL Cool J, one of the two guys “that believe in who they are.” LL Cool J has enjoyed a kind of longevity with which very few rappers can compete. In the mid-’80s and early ’90s, particularly, he was a dynamic MC. (I am still partial to the “I’m Bad”/”Radio”/”Go Cut Creator Go” era.) His career has blossomed beyond the record industry to include music and film.
I can understand why an artist like Paisley would be attracted to an artist like LL Cool J. I can’t for the life of me understand why he’d choose LL Cool J to begin “a conversation” to reconcile. Rap is overrun with artists who’ve spent some portion of their career attempting to have “a conversation.” There’s Chuck D. There’s Big Daddy Kane. There’s KRS-ONE. There’s Talib. There’s Mos Def. There’s Kendrick Lamar. There’s Black Thought. There’s Dead Prez. And so on.
In an artform distinguished by a critical mass concerned with racism, LL’s work is distinguished by its lack of concern. Which is fine. “Pink Cookies” is dope. “Booming System” is dope. “I Shot Ya” is dope. I even rock that “Who Do You Love” joint. But I wouldn’t call up Talib Kweli to record a song about gang violence in L.A., and I wouldn’t call up KRS-ONE to drop a verse on a love ballad. The only real reason to call up LL is that he is black and thus must have something insightful to say about the Confederate Flag.
The assumption that there is no real difference among black people is exactly what racism is.
I agree that choosing LL Cool J is a veeeeery strange choice for this conversation, and I worry that this song will enter the lexicon of liberal and conservative deniers of racism in the same way that the Morgan Freeman video has. Beyond that though, the idea that LL Cool J, a man who isn’t really known for critiquing race, is a suitable stand-in for artists who have devoted their careers to it is, yes, pretty racist.
The third is also from Ta-Nehesi Coates:
Even within those confines, it did not have to be this way. Paisley could have reached out and had a conversation with an artist who might actually challenge his worldview. He could have engaged Mos Def and walked through Brooklyn. He might have engaged Common, walked the South Side and read about the forces that made it so. He might have talked to Kendrick Lamar and walked through Compton. He could have visited the jails and thought about why they are heaving with black men, and wondered what connections that heaving has with the past.
But acts would require a mind interested in something more than being told what it already knows. It would require an artist doing his job and exploring. It would require truly engaging a community, instead of haughtily lecturing it on how, precisely, it should react to great pain. It would require something more than mere reification. It would require something more than absolution. It would require talking to people who may not like you. It would require the rarest of things in this space where everyone wants to write, but no one wants to read–a truly curious mind.
And this, to my eye, highlights the central problem at issue in the Paisley song, well-intentioned though it may have been. Paisley has decided that he already knows everything he needs to know about race, and that all that is needed is for him to start talking about it. That if he can just get black people to get over slavery, they’ll stop getting upset when white people commit acts of “whoopsie-daisy” racism. The problem is that Paisley is perpetuating the problem by failing to put in the work to understand the issue he’s supposedly trying to fix.
Instead, he has chosen to take to the airwaves and whitesplain how Southern racism is just a big misunderstanding, and that he’ll stop judging people for their neckwear if they will stop noticing that he benefits from a long history of violence and theft against black people that continues to this day.
Let’s hope that, in the wake of the backlash he’s (deservedly) facing, he accidentally learns something.
Like this article? Follow me on Twitter!
*above and beyond the fact that I think he’s clearly ignorant and should have tried learning about race instead of teaching about it