Brad and Ladies Love’s song “Accidental Racist” is troubling for so many reasons, but there is only so much room on the intert00bs and so much time to read, so I’ll focus on two (If you want more, Melissa McEwan’s post is a good place to start).
Long before I heard the song my ears were assaulted by LL Cool J’s line: “If you don’t mind my gold chains / I’ll forget the iron chains.” This line comes to the crux of what the song is about. It ignores the effects of historical and institutional racism on Black USians (particularly, though other racial and ethnic groups also facing contemporary and sustained institutional racism in the US are ignored here – per usual) and treats race relations as a tiff that can be overcome by buddyhood. After all, Paisley can’t comprehend the animosity shown to his character’s Confederate Flag t-shirt. And then there’s the line about him getting blamed for stuff that happened before he was born. You know, like slavery and Jim Crow. To quote Homer: “Why do you gotta bring up old stuff?”
Because Paisley, like much of White America (Northern as well as Southern,) fails to grasp the god-awful truth that racism – like sexism – is alive and well and systemic and tremendous. Racism is not just the Tea Party, although in corners it is very blatant and open. Racism is not just AM Radio, though it’s all over the DNA of right-wing talk show hosts. Racism is actual practice and actual harm done to others under a pathology of White Superiority.
Racism is alive in red-lining, in predatory lending, in the high rates of unemployment and homelessness. Racism is observable in the vastly disproportionate incarceration rates. Racism is alive through voter suppression and the negation of voters’ rights for ex-felons who have done their time. Racism is alive and well in the refusal to challenge corporate America’s White-dominant system (which also adversely affects people of color throughout the world in Third World Nations).
But Paisley can’t acknowledge that. For the brutal reality of racism is reduced to feelings – and White America doesn’t want to get its feelings hurt.
James’s problem here is that he also doesn’t want to hurt White America’s feelings. “No, it’s okay. Look, *you’re* not racist yourself even if you wear a symbol of massive oppression, representing an entire nation designed to keep slavery as a way of life forever as well as the hopes and dreams of those who wanted that nation to rise again. You can’t participate in racism because you’re a good guy with a good heart.” That is James’s role in this song, to play the Black buddy who affirms the White male of his goodness even as the White male continues to downplay and erase the very evil he is complicit in.
Very evil we are complicit in.
This line about the chains takes that line of thinking even further, though. According to James, wearing cultural artifacts of Blackness that White Americans do not necessarily grasp (whether it be a gold chain or a do-rag) is offensive and its transgression is equal to the amount of offense of slavery and the related wearing of the symbols of subjugation. They’re the SAME thing and equally offensive because slavery makes Black people uncomfortable, I guess? Because slavery was a lifestyle choice?
More likely, because it offends the stylish sensibilities of a group of people who would rather wear cowboy hats inside? The point being that no style is neutral and that there are cultural touchstones as to why different groups of people wear what they wear and do what they do. But NEVER can a choice of style be compared to the monstrosity, evil, life-sucking machine of slavery.
The second point of contention is this idea about what the song is about, in Paisley’s words:
I just think art has a responsibility to lead the way, and I don’t know the answers, but I feel like asking the question is the first step, and we’re asking the question in a big way. How do I show my Southern pride? What is offensive to you?
There is this pervasive idea that just talking about Big Issues leads the way to justice and reconciliation. But sometimes we can have a talk about the very real things we need to (Southern pride, for example. Racism in the US, for another. Slavery and Jim Crow) but we frame it in such a way that the majority of the conversation is detrimental and damaging. This song – with an endorsement from a major Black figure – leads many White Americans to the conclusion that racism is merely a frame of mind kept together by African Americans still bitter about stuff that happened long before our generations entered a bar. Racism is actually like any prolonged oppression done by the majority class/culture, in that it is invisible to the majority while very real to the suppressed.
Having a conversation about something that one party refuses to acknowledge is not a conversation – it’s a railroading, it’s a blindsiding. What kind of road trip was this guy planning, anyway?
If he really wanted to have a genre-bending, country-rap dialog about racism, slavery, and chains, Paisley should have invited Kanye. Or Mos, or Talib. Or, he could have actually listened and had a real conversation first. But that would have entailed listening. And maybe getting his feelings hurt for a bit.