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Apr 10 2013

“Accidental” racism and intentional brilliance

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.

(snip)

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.

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*above and beyond the fact that I think he’s clearly ignorant and should have tried learning about race instead of teaching about it

21 comments

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  1. 1
    sumdum

    Found this page elsewhere with a breakdown by verse: http://rapgenius.com/Brad-paisley-accidental-racist-lyrics

  2. 2
    matthewgill

    The gold chains/iron chains line blows my mind more than anything else. I don’t see how on earth someone could find an equivalence there.

  3. 3
    Anthony K

    We’re still pickin’ up the pieces, walkin’ on eggshells, fightin’ over yesterday

    Is that what people of colour are doing? Walking on eggshells lest they upset somebody with a ill-thought comment? Is that what Raymond Kelly meant when he said he wanted stop-and-frisk to instil fear in minorities? The kind of fear you get when you wear a T-shirt to a party and start to suspect that nobody understands that it just means you really dig Skynyrd?

  4. 4
    smrnda

    The ‘eggshells’ line made me think of a perspective that pops up among some white people, particularly white males. They complain that *everything* they say will get picked apart and they’ll be accused of racism, sexism, classism or any other list of prejudices that they either claim they *don’t have* or that they are *trying to get past.* It’s the standard “I have good intentions but you people just will never stop criticizing me!” mentality.

    Part of this might just be that people who typically have power and dictate to others how they ought to speak and behave don’t like it when, even legitimately, they end up being the person who is told how to say things and how to act. The good intentions only go so far as they proclaim that they have them and at least don’t use explicit racial slurs or misogynistic or homophobic taunts, and they expect that everybody should realize what a *huge benevolent action* this already is and shouldn’t be so demanding. Its’ either indifference or laziness.

    If you don’t want to be racist, you have to be open to feedback that something you said or did might be racist. Like any sort of learning process, nobody knows exactly the right thing to say or do in any situation, but being willing to ask questions and listen requires some humility and some empathy.

  5. 5
    NateHevens, resident SOOPER-GENIUS... apparently...

    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.

    Is there any info about that Morgan Freeman video? This is the first I’ve seen/heard of it and I’d like to read the context/details and reactions…

    On topic… Brad Paisley is not a liberal… he is a moderate. And he’s always been rather ignorant about this stuff. I, like you, Crommunist, hope the backlash forces him to think about this and maybe learn something… because he desperately needs it.

  6. 6
    jenBPhillips

    Of all the rage-worthy things about this shitty song, the thing that sticks in my craw the most is the suggestion that all that unfortunate racist baggage is in the past. My most charitable interpretation of the Paisley-sung section that Crom excerpted in the OP is that Paisley honestly doesn’t know that racism is still very much alive and well EVERYWHERE. It does tend to be a bit more frank in the south, but it can certainly be found in all corners of the country–even, sadly, in my own extremely, crunchy, nearly-all-white-but-by-god-we’d-welcome-any-people-of-color-if-they-ever-found-their-way-here community.

    A child in my daughter’s fourth grade class has been seeking out another student in the class who is biracial for the express purpose of telling her racist jokes. Blatant, n-word-laden racist jokes. He’s been called on it by other students and, more recently, is in deep shit with the staff, but nevertheless remains completely unrepentant. They are, he claims, just jokes. Nothing to get het up about.

    Fuck “fightin’ over yesterday”. Racism isn’t going anywhere until people stop teaching today’s kids to hate with such casual aplomb.

  7. 7
    AxolotlXolotl

    Unfortunately, there has been a lot of historical revisionism in the South, partly aided by not wanting to acknowledge themselves as being the bad guys. They just want to be good guys fighting for a different cause on the wrong side. That particular bit of revisionism is infamous now. It is more of a concious effort by some people and ignorant acceptance by most others. The best way to handle that isn’t to just let them alone to live their way. It’s to challenge them and show them what is wrong that they themselves cannot see.

    The Stars and Stripes is part of our heritage too, yet all these supposed patriots down here are willing to fly a flag of traitors because they think it’s cool. It really is true that they just don’t think of it related to race, but that’s also why it’s important to point out to people when they can’t even see the racism inherent in their own system because they are so immersed in it.

    That said, I’ve accidentally caught myself in some behaviors too. I was raised around racists, so I learned some behaviors. It lacked the underlying racism, but that still doesn’t help when you’re joking around with a friend and realize too late you just called him “boy” because of how you and your brother used to volley insults. My response isn’t “Well, that’s just how I was raised. Stop making a big deal of it,” it’s “Holy crap, that’s some pretty socially ingrained racism right there. We need to cut that out when I can insult a guy like that without realizing I’m doing so.”

    Afraid I can’t help you on the rap though. I’m more of a Rock and Metal guy. Ferruginous sandstone FTW!

  8. 8
    CaitieCat, getaway driver

    That said, I’ve accidentally caught myself in some behaviors too. I was raised around racists, so I learned some behaviors. It lacked the underlying racism

    Please excuse me for asking here, but I think this is relevant to Crommunist’s post – on what basis can you say “it lacked the underlying racism”? Why do you suppose that you, unlike all the rest of us, were able to be raised by racists, making racist jokes, and somehow be immune from harbouring any racism?

    This is the very kind of attitude that’s the problem: “I may do racist things, but it doesn’t make me a racist“, like there’s some functional difference (to the oppressed) between maliciously meant or simply ignorant.

    We – and by we, I mean ALL OF US, white, black, Asian, First Nations, whatever – ALL OF US need to admit that we are racists, and that the difference between us and the people tying the knots around a man’s neck is one of degree, not of kind. It is not possible to not grow up racist in this world, not yet. It remains entirely too pervasive, too insidious,for us to be able to believe that only cross-burners are “racists”.

    No. WE ARE ALL RACISTS.

    What we have to learn is twofold:

    1) how not to do racist things – this requires examination of one’s own behaviour, and an ability to listen when someone says we screwed up.

    2) that being called “a racist” is no more of a pejorative than “a patriot”; it’s a descriptor, and an accurate one, and that saying you are one isn’t an automatic condemnation to some living hell of ostracism and public shaming. It’s an acknowledgement that you grew up in a society which primed you in every way possible to consider people based on their race – on their appearance generally – and that it takes constant, mindful effort to break out of the patterns that cause harm to people, because “being racist” is the default state for humanity right now.

    Great post, Crommunist.

  9. 9
    anthropologistunderground

    @ JenB: “Fuck “fightin’ over yesterday”. Racism isn’t going anywhere until people stop teaching today’s kids to hate with such casual aplomb.”

    Yes. This. A couple of weeks ago, a preschooler in my daughter’s class told another kid that her skin was ugly because it’s brown. A preschooler. Today I helped in the classroom with diversity and inclusion activities. Some kids seemed to get it. Others, not. It’s hard to undo the casual racism these kids absorb from the larger culture.

  10. 10
    Rob

    The gold chains/iron chains line blows my mind more than anything else. I don’t see how on earth someone could find an equivalence there.

    I suspect that they never sought equivalence. I suspect it was a couple of clueless Dude Bro’s looking for the laziest most obvious rhyme they could find so they could move on to the next line.

  11. 11
    Algonquin on the Bayou a/k/a Sharon

    Send this column to Bill Maher to explain why it’s not okay to use sexist language to talk about Sarah Palin…no matter how clueless she is. Excellent article. Thanks.

  12. 12
    johnradke

    @smrdna

    Reminds me of this Jezebel column responding to some dude whining that no one will tell him the “rules” for not pissing off the ladies with his suave compliments. Such people are merely attempting to broker a ceasefire between warring parties, as if it were just an oppositional conflict between monolithic entities (whites v. blacks, men v. women, etc.).

    The question, in their minds, is “what is the most my team can get away with?” rather than “what causes someone to feel and react this way?” or “what’s it feel like to be other people?”

  13. 13
    Illuminata, Genie in the Beer Bottle

    agree that choosing LL Cool J is a veeeeery strange choice for this conversation

    I disagree. LL Cool J is a republican. Who better to diminish slavery by comparing to fashion choices, then a black republican?

  14. 14
    Improbable Joe, bearer of the Official SpokesGuitar

    I could totally write an AWESOME song about race called “Accidental Racist” where Brad Paisley apologizes for being a racist, and in the video he throws away the shirt with the Traitor’s Flag on it. Instead, Paisley’s song basically says “I didn’t mean to be a racist by doing these things, and I’m going to keep on not meaning to be racist while continuing to do these things, and it is up to the victims of my racism to change their attitude towards me even though I’m not going to change a goddamned thing about myself.”

    You’re an “accidental racist” until someone tells you that your words or actions are racist. After that, if you don’t change anything it means you’re being 100% intentionally racist.

  15. 15
    AxolotlXolotl

    Well, CaitieCat, I felt I wasn’t racist because I don’t say or live like people I grew up around who declare things like “I like black people and think everyone should own a couple,” or who refer to a white man as a white man, a black man as the N word, and a woman as a bitch in everday conversation, like when driving and saying “Now look at thiz [blank] here,”. My mom even tends to drop a cluster of N words if she ever sees Al Sharpton on TV and an aunt who is a missionary and teaches that God wants the different races to stay separate since he divided everyone up from the Tower of Babel story. Her views, not mine.

    I try to recognize and comprehend the racism in my life and work towards being a good human being towards people.

    Once I got over the feeling of being attacked that comes with pointing out a person’s racism to them, I was able to admit you have given me something to think about in regards to underlying racism, even f I don’t like being put into the exact same category as my family and neighbors. I would hope the offense to being lumped in with them is easy enough to understand. Anyway, have a nice day.

  16. 16
    Algonquin on the Bayou a/k/a Sharon

    AxolotlXolotl, I didn’t get the sense that CaitieCat was scolding you when she/he said “This is the very kind of attitude that’s the problem: ‘I may do racist things, but it doesn’t make me a racist’, like there’s some functional difference (to the oppressed) between maliciously meant or simply ignorant,” and when she/he said, “We are all racists.” I believe she/he was merely emphasizing that we’re all hard-wired by evolution to make quick categorical assessments under stress…whenever flight or fight kicks in. It was a point my first husband refused to comprehend each time he explained he wasn’t a “bad person” when he called me a “slimy c*nt” in the heat of every argument. I would ask, “From my point of view, what’s the difference between you and a bad person?” As a species capable of higher order thinking, we can tell evolution to go jump in the lake, to paraphrase Steven Pinker.

  17. 17
    Uncle Ebeneezer

    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.

    This is the only part that I question. I don’t think we really know why Paisley chose to work with LL. Perhaps it was because he wanted to “start a conversation” and thought that LL would be a suitable conversant. In that case, yeah it’s a strange choice and there are obviously many rappers who would have been better. But I can also see several real-world/practical reasons why he chose him. 1.) they met somewhere and hit it off personally. 2.) they share a social network (their kids go to school together or something.) 3.) Paisley is not that familiar with rap artists, but was a fan of LL back in the day because of the big hits/MTV etc., 4.) the record label thought it would be a good idea and suggested LL, 5.) he wanted to converse with a Republican, 6.) he knew of other/better rappers but frankly wanted someone whose position wasn’t too far from his own or wouldn’t challenge him too strenuously, 7.) he didn’t want someone with great expertise because he knew he’d end up looking like a fool. In other words he wanted to keep things simple 8.) if they already had a social relationship, he chose LL as a favor to revive his career (Paisley is probably a bit bigger of a star currently than LL is.) (I haven’t researched enough to know what prompted the collaboration so feel free to weigh in, if anyone knows, but I did read that Paisley also performed on LL’s most recent album, so apparently conversations on racism are not the ONLY thing bringing them together.)

    Anyways, I totally agree that the song is awful and the sentiments in it are racist and the Flag-as-heritage and Flag=Do Rag parts are ridiculous. I just think that the argument that choosing LL somehow adds to the cumulative evidence of Paisley’s racism, is based mostly on assumptions without any evidence supporting them.

    Artists perform with other artists for all sorts of reasons and many times it has nothing to do with the quality of the expected result. And when an artist says they wanted to “start a conversation” on a topic, they usually aren’t talking about the kind of vigorous intellectual exploration that I would welcome, they’re talking about a couple lines in a pop song that are essentially the same as the water-cooler conversations of laypeople. As much as the lyrics of this song stink and the sentiment is totally lame (for all the reasons the critics have laid out) it IS the kind of ignorance that you can hear amongst people who approach this stuff more casually. In short, it’s entirely possible that this sort of casual, simple (and ignorant) conversation is exactly what Paisley wanted because it represents the kind of conversations that are happening in his world.

  18. 18
    Crommunist

    I just think that the argument that choosing LL somehow adds to the cumulative evidence of Paisley’s racism, is based mostly on assumptions without any evidence supporting them.

    I’m not sure who is making that argument, but I’m not.

    In short, it’s entirely possible that this sort of casual, simple (and ignorant) conversation is exactly what Paisley wanted because it represents the kind of conversations that are happening in his world.

    If you look at how Paisley talks about the song, he is not trying to mirror a conversation that is already happening – he’s trying to SPARK a conversation by presenting his thesis.

  19. 19
    Karen Locke

    I am a racist. I know this. I work hard to eliminate racist behaviors from my repertoire. I work hard to eliminate the easy, racist evaluations from my thinking. But I suspect, on a lot of things, that I’m just as clueless as any other white person. I’m not convinced, once you’ve been programmed in childhood with racism, that it’s possible to completely get it out of your system. I can but try.

    So, in general, I’m grateful to be called on my “accidental” racism. I’m grateful that there are people of other races who will take the time and energy to try to teach me what I did or said that was wrong. Not everyone will, of course, and I don’t blame them. Thank you to those who have done so. You honor me with your criticism.

  20. 20
    PatrickG

    First, let me just say that I’ve been secretly hoping you’d post on this topic. Second, let me say that I really enjoyed this post, and learned a lot about rap music history and LL Cool J. Third, thanks for the links to other commentary on this — I haven’t had much time to read lately, but this is something I’ve been wanting to explore more, because maigod that song. Ugh.

    However, since PZ issued the directive to be mean to you (I think), I must do so. Specifically, I feel you’re being entirely too charitable to Paisley here. He’s worked very hard to cultivate a very specific public persona, and he definitely knows who his audience is.

    I enter into evidence this atrocious piece of shit: I’m still a guy. His “I’m gonna miss her” fishing song is pretty special too.

    Full confession: I kind of like his music (don’t judge me!), but he’s clearly angling for a very specific audience. Otherwise he wouldn’t actually sing the following:

    These days there’s dudes getting facials
    Manicured, waxed and botoxed
    With deep spray-on tans and creamy lotiony hands
    You can’t grip a tacklebox

    … while looking like a poster child for metrosexualism*. Term used very deliberately to illustrate the point, and possibly to give you a precise notion of my age. Irony meters in four states simply melted into slag when he sang those lines.

    On a related note, and because I find it an amusing anecdote…. when I saw him in concert** — at Shoreline Amphitheater, in the heart of godless Silicon Valley — I saw more jacked-up pickups and people in ridiculous hats in one day than I’ve ever seen living in Kentucky. The overwhelming stink of desperate-to-be-cool-while-totally-failing was intoxicating. Why the fuck does anyone need a 4×4 that can be raised 5′ for driving down 101? Not to mention the immaculate condition of all these trucks — none of them had been off-roading, obviously.

    Back to my actual point: I really don’t think he’s actually that clueless. He’s very good at catering to the macho myth-cowboy wannabe crowd, and fun enough to listen to in most songs that he keeps the cross-over appeal. Given that he keeps defending his intent, and saying he would absolutely do it again despite the criticism he’s receiving, it’s very difficult for me to see this as anything but deliberate provocation. It’s getting him on Leno, after all.

    So, when you close with:

    Let’s hope that, in the wake of the backlash he’s (deservedly) facing, he accidentally learns something.

    I don’t think he needs to learn. I think he already knows, and I think he’s doing it quite deliberately.

    TL;DR: Brad Paisley is a Pop/Country Music Troll, and he makes a lot of money as such.

    * I hesitated to use this term at all, and I want to be very clear that I attach no judgment, just going with the lingo of my youth (ok, yes, I see the problems there). Paisley wrote this song as a deliberate prod at men who weren’t “manly” — or at least not Real Country Men. Though he seems to be going more “rugged” these days. Market research may have told him to dress differently. :)
    ** Yes, I’ve seen him in concert. I enjoyed it — but only ironically!

  21. 21
    NoAssume

    That song sounds like a mess…

    On the whole walking on eggshells issue, my perspective is that I wish that there were spaces I could retreat into where I didn’t need to worry about offending people as much.

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