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“Accidental Racist” Song Is, Well, Accidentally Racist

“Accidental Racist” Song Is, Well, Accidentally Racist

Brad Paisley and LL Cool J’s collaborative song hit the web this week and, while music taste is subjective, this might be a case where it’s fair to say that it is objectively bad. Even worse than the music is the song’s problematic lyrical content, which has managed to propel the song to viral status – for all the wrong reasons.

Listen to “Accidental Racist” here, or just spare your ears and read the lyrics here.

The song begins with country star Paisley wearing a Confederate flag shirt in public and feeling – get this – judged. He goes on to say that he displays the flag only because he’s a proud southerner and Lynyrd Skynyrd fan, so why does everyone have to assume he’s a racist?

The thing is, Paisley already knows why. In the lyrics, he acknowledges that he is aware of the flag’s racist symbolism. (Plus, someone ought to tell him that even Lynyrd Skynyrd has disassociated itself from the Confederate flag at this point.) In essence, he is actually asking why people are making him feel bad, while not stopping to consider how his actions are making others feel bad, as well.

This is what we call white privilege. As a white man, he’s not used to being criticized for his opinions and actions. He is someone who is discovering how much he hates discrimination… now that he’s on the receiving end of it. “Why are people assuming something awful about Brad Paisley that’s not true?” he wonders, seemingly without taking into account that others receive this treatment to much larger extents.

For the record, I don’t think Paisley is a racist. While I’m sure he had good intentions in creating this song, he is a bit too ignorant about this complex subject to pull it off inoffensively. He acknowledges some of this ignorance in the lyrics (“I got a lot to learn,” “it ain’t like I can walk a mile in someone else’s skin”), but it is clear that he is oblivious to just how insensitive he is coming across.

Still, it’s not as though Paisley doesn’t raise any good points, even if in a muddied manner. His attempt to reconcile a pride in his southern heritage without being labeled a racist is an interesting dilemma. As a north-born, west-residing white man, I can’t deny that I myself cling to stereotypes about white southerners that I wish I could shake.

Then again, if, as he sings, Paisley doesn’t want to be judged on his home’s history, he’s going to have to drop the historical emblem that evokes those memories. Choose new ways to represent your culture’s present values or a historical image that isn’t so racially charged. While Paisley shouldn’t be presumed a racist because of his cowboy hat, when he is criticized for wearing a symbol of hate like the Confederate flag, forgive me for saving my sympathies for someone else.

But moving on from Paisley, things get that much more horrifying when LL Cool J joins the song at the halfway point. Maybe I, too, am an accidental racist for putting more blame on the black man in a song plagued with racial insensitivities, but I can’t believe he wrote and/or agreed to rap many of the lines he does.

“If you don’t judge my do-rag/I won’t judge your red flag,” LL sings. I realize the line is intended to say, “let’s both stop hating each other’s cultural identities,” but you can’t equate those two things. One is a piece of cloth worn on the head, the other is a historical symbol of slavery and racial oppression.

LL’s next comparison is even more shocking: “If you don’t judge my gold chains/I’ll forget the iron chains.” Again, you can’t equivocate a harmless fashion accessory with a human atrocity. If a Caucasian American doesn’t like an African American’s gold chains, that is indicative of a larger prejudice, whereas if an African American doesn’t like slavery, that’s a justified position. For goodness sakes, it’s like a Jewish person saying, “If you don’t judge my yarmulke, I’ll forget the Holocaust.” They’re not remotely in the same realm.

That’s one major element this song is neglecting – a sense of proportionality. If you took these lyrics to heart, you may get the impression that prejudice against black and white people is similar. Alas, this inequality is not the same. The extent to which a white person faces discrimination – both historically and contemporarily – cannot compare to what a black person faces. Consider how African Americans are unemployed, impoverished and incarcerated at higher rates. Consider how African Americans are underrepresented in politics, media and leadership positions. It’s not that white people never face prejudice; they just aren’t nearly as oppressed by it.

Although both singers are right – history cannot be altered and they weren’t part of the generation that perpetuated slavery – this notion that we should “forget” slavery is absurd. Let’s work to a point where the aforementioned effects are no longer felt. Let’s work to a point where we can no longer begin to comprehend how slavery was ever considered acceptable. But let’s never try to erase it from our history as these musicians suggest.

If Paisley experiences white privilege, then LL has been skewed by what I’ll deem “celebrity privilege.” His success in the entertainment industry is not representative of the oppression many other African Americans face. Not a whole lot of black people would so nonchalantly say, “RIP Robert E. Lee” and dismiss slavery as “bygones.” I’m not saying these singers can’t be part of the discussion on striking racial harmony, but they might want to expand the conversation to include more perspectives before concluding, “Most people are only ‘accidentally’ racist, so get over it.”

In summary, Paisley’s song bemoaning how he was accidentally perceived as a racist accidentally made him seem like an even bigger racist. (It’s sort of like how Alanis Morissette’s song “Ironic” used no actual examples of irony and thus, in turn, became ironic.) It’s worth noting that the country music community has labeled Paisley a progressive for merely broaching this subject at all, which is probably a good indication of why Paisley thought he should tackle the issue of racism in the first place.

Hopefully, the criticism of this song doesn’t end the conversation. Talking through and becoming aware of the ways in which we are ignorant is how we grow as a society. Even if Paisley and LL Cool J didn’t address the subject from the most enlightened perspective, the resulting discourse can still help us all to be less “accidentally racist” in the future.

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Photo Credit: Craig O'Neal

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231 comments

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8:53PM PDT on Jun 10, 2013

the song was just fine. thought provoking. At least he is addressing a real issue, not twanging about beer and trucks and dead dogs under pick ups

6:37PM PDT on Apr 20, 2013

I found the lyrics thought provoking in regard to how I sometimes allow myself to default to constructed labels and symbols that represent a time or experience that was hurtful or threatening but has nothing to do with the present moment. If I use that lens to perceive the present, I am letting a memory take power over the present moment to place blame outside of myself where I have no control.

The alignment of LL and Paisley to get people talking and thinking is badly needed. Not to talk about others but to look at themselves and how they perceive their world and the people in it.

12:15PM PDT on Apr 18, 2013

I have not heard this song as I do not listen to country music or rap. However I know about being racist and have experience it personally for myself, it is not alway the white against the blacks that is racist but within ones own race for different reasons, you can not expect to put what you feel into a song this is where these two was wrong, racism is believed and most of the time taught or placing the blame on how you have been hurt by one or the other in the wrong place. We as Black people can not totally forget about how we were put in slavery it did happened, however we also forgive but please don't think just because it did not happened on your watch that we should forget. Opportunities do evade pledge the black and we all know it but LL you must start a discussion and figure out ways to fix the inequality of life that the Blacks now have but through songs it always will become confrontational. not enough time.

10:49AM PDT on Apr 16, 2013

Thank you.

7:14AM PDT on Apr 15, 2013

Thank you for sharing. Actually I listened to that song and that made me think. I think Donna B. is so right!! There are so many racists in this world; sadly but true. We should respect one another with integrity! Why people always try to judge each other?? Life is too short to hate each other!! Not even enough to love others... So I love my pets; they never hate me or betray me!!

5:47PM PDT on Apr 13, 2013

What an idiot!

12:48PM PDT on Apr 13, 2013

I agree with Donna B. I feel like white people always get the racist rap and the blame for how other race's are treated. It's always the White Man's fault. It's ok for others to sport Brown Pride for example UFC fighter Cain Velasquez tattoo across his chest, why is he not a racist?People fly their country's flags even though they live in the US. I understand you are proud of where you are from but from coming here for a better life it's a slap in the face. So what if you are proud to be from the south and wear a confederate flag shirt, why is that not ok? What if I wore a White Pride shirt or got a tattoo, I would then be a racist guaranteed.

7:31AM PDT on Apr 13, 2013

The songwriter attempts to have an honest dialogue about race, and many of us in the South do not believe the Confederate battle flag is an inherently racist symbol. Have Native Americans, or Japanese Americans interned in WW II, convinced us that the US flag is an inherently racist symbol? No, they haven't; yet the US government has had some racist policies at various points in its history.

1:08PM PDT on Apr 12, 2013

I think after all my profound deafness may have been a blessing because the justepositioning of lyrics is even worse than bad jokes. It is like that modern poetry whining about meaninglessness. I mean since actual folk singing has passed away.

10:53AM PDT on Apr 12, 2013

I guess that one part could have also been like a Native American saying, "If you stop judging me by my feathery headdress, then maybe I'll forget about what Columbus and his boys did to us." I think certain parts may have just been badly worded and expressed due to a certain amount of ignorance, which Brad Paisley himself even admits to. But I believe they meant well, made some really good points in the song, and I think he and LL are both great artists.

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