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4 lyrics that capture the problem with “accidental racist”

04/09/13 , , , , , , , , , ,

unofficial cover art for the song

unofficial cover art for the song

country music star brad paisley and rap icon james smith aka ll cool j created a buzz with their recent collabo “accidental racist” (listen to it below & check out the lyrics here):

the thing is most of the buzz that i’ve heard hasn’t been positive.  some people view the song as a source of unintentional comedy; for others, it’s a source of shame and anger.  while i think the two artists had good intentions in making the song, here are 4 lyrics from the track that symbolize where they went wrong:

“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” (brad paisley): paisley starts out fine in acknowledging that he has a lot to learn (we all do on some issues).  his reasoning though for what he doesn’t know is problematic.  the “i’m just a white man” line echoes the “i’m just a simple man” trope found throughout country music.  however, paisley’s use of it here to explain his “accidentally racist” behavior doesn’t fly.  it’s 2013 where many people, especially those with paisley’s financial means, have a wealth of knowledge literally at their fingertips if they want it. whatever his intentions were for wearing a dixie flag t-shirt in the song, even a so-called simple, white man from the south (and paisley’s west virginia barely qualifies) should be fully aware that the racist history associated with the flag (a history that even paisley acknowledges in the song that we can’t just rewrite) will make the shirt offensive to many people.  choosing not to avail yourself of such knowledge or even worse, knowing better and not acting on it, isn’t an accident.  it’s a failure (in this case, potentially a harmful one).

“i try to put myself in your shoes and that’s a good place to begin/but it ain’t like i can walk a mile in someone else’s skin” (paisley):  again, paisley starts off right by trying to put himself in another person’s shoes.  however again, he downplays his capacity for change in the matter with the rest of the line.  of course, you can’t literally walk in another person’s skin (unless you’re eddie murphy).  still, pointing that out here makes it seem like the understanding he’s seeking is beyond his scope when in reality, it’s not.  a good part about empathy is that it can allow us to feel/understand another person’s struggles without fully experiencing it for ourselves (if we open ourselves up to do so).

“dear mr. white man” (ll cool j): the start of uncle l’s verse might seem innocuous to some, but for me, it hearkens back to the forced one-way flow of respect given by blacks to whites dating back to american slavery times.  sadly, this reading of the lyric actually fits the humble, subservient tone mr. smith takes with the rest of his verse (it’s ironic that he later equates himself to quentin tarantino’s django when throughout the song he sounds more like stephen, sam jackson’s character in the movie).  smith’s flaccid approach is surprising coming from the same man who did this.  worse though, he seems to place himself on unequal footing when in this particular dialogue, a widespread establishment of equal standing is needed to address our nation’s racial problems.

“if you don’t judge my gold chains/i’ll forget the iron chains” (ll cool j): here, smith tries to make a deal with his white counterparts where if they stop judging him based on stereotypes, he’ll forget their ancestral sin of slavery.  while the rhyme might make it seem like an equal exchange, it’s far from it.  the most troubling part about it is the premature concession to just forget the iron chains and many other atrocities associated with america’s enslavement of black people.  the purpose of remembering slavery isn’t to hold a grudge.  history, regardless of the pain/embarrassment it may stir up, provides us with proper context for how we became the individuals/society we are today.  such context is important when discussing race and the socio-economic issues linked to it (without it, we might confuse the progress in things like affirmative action as a final solution to an ultimately more complex problem).

in the end, the biggest mistake made by the “accidental racist” singer & the “accidental uncle tom” rapper isn’t as much about racism as it is about ignorance.  paisley tries to use an “aww, shucks” attitude to avoid the responsibility demanded of him by his access to knowledge but it doesn’t work. for ll, his overly accommodating approach + premature “let bygones be bygones” attitude undermines the time/effort needed to truly heal 200+ years’ worth of wounds.

there’s a great quote from malcolm x that comes to mind: “don’t be in such a hurry to condemn a person because he doesn’t do what you do, or think as you think or as fast. there was a time when you didn’t know what you know today.”  i don’t think anyone should simply condemn paisley or smith for their missteps (especially when they might be attempting something that other mainstream artists don’t on the regular).  nevertheless, i do hope that the different reactions to the track will help them know better and do better in the future.

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