Opinion: Song’s racial theme misses mark

April 14, 2013


There are many things to say about Brad Paisley’s new song.

The country music giant is under fire for “Accidental Racist,” about a Starbucks employee who objects to Paisley’s Confederate battle flag shirt. The song, Paisley’s attempt to metabolize his conflicted feelings as “a white man comin’ to you from the southland” trying to pick his way through the minefield of race, has generated, well … feedback.

Rolling Stone dubbed it “questionable.” Gawker called it “horrible.” CMT News said it was “clumsily written” and singled out guest performer LL Cool J for an “inept” rap.

They are being kind. As several observers have noted, “Accidental Racist” brings to this difficult subject all the emotional and intellectual depth of a fifth-grader’s social studies essay. And let’s not even get started on LL’s rap, which inexplicably finds moral equivalence between a do-rag and that American swastika, the Confederate battle flag, an act of stupendous stupidity for which somebody ought to pull his black card.

But the song also fails in a more subtle, yet substantive way. Twice, Paisley speaks of the impossibility of imagining life from the African-American perspective: “I try to put myself in your shoes,” he sings, “and that’s a good place to begin, but it ain’t like I can walk a mile in someone else’s skin.” As if African-American life is so mysterious and exotic, so alien to all other streams of American life, that unless you were born to it, you cannot hope to comprehend it.

That’s a copout — and a disappointment. Say what you will about his song, but also say this: Paisley is in earnest. His heart — this is neither boilerplate nor faint praise — is in the right place. Credit him for the courage, rare in music, almost unheard of in country music, to confront this most thankless of topics. But courage and earnestness will net him nothing without honesty.

Every day, we imagine the lives of people who aren’t like us. Those who care to try seem to have no trouble empathizing with, say, Cuban exiles separated from family, or Muslims shunned by Islamophobes. For a songwriter, inhabiting other people’s lives is practically the job description. Bruce Springsteen was not a Vietnam vet when he sang “Born in the USA.”

But where African-American life is concerned, one frequently hears Paisley’s lament: how a white man is locked into his own perspective. That’s baloney. Both history and the present day are replete with white people — Clifford Durr, Thaddeus Stevens, Eleanor Roosevelt, Leon Litwack, Tim Wise — who seemed to have no great difficulty accessing black life.

One suspects one difference is that they refused to be hobbled by white guilt, the reflexive need to deny the undeniable, defend the indefensible, explain the inexplicable. They declined to be paralyzed by the baggage of history. One suspects they felt not guilt, but simple human obligation.

One suspects the other difference is that people like Wise and Litwack rejected the conspiracy of blindness that afflicts too many white people, allowing them to see a 13.3 percent black unemployment rate and call it laziness or drug crime incarceration as high as 90 percent black and call it justice.

These people were honest enough to see what was there and call America on it.

If Paisley wants to “walk a mile in someone else’s skin,” it’s not that hard. You do it with black folks the same way you do it with anyone else. You drop your presumptions, embrace your ignorance and listen to somebody — preferably multiple somebodies — who is living what you seek to understand. You visit the museums and read the books.

It is vaguely insulting, this idea that there’s something about African-American life that makes it more impenetrable than others. There is not. If Paisley finds this skin impossible to walk in, the reason is doubtless simple:

He’s never truly tried.

— Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. CDT each Wednesday on www.MiamiHerald.com.


ThePilgrim 5 years, 2 months ago

It is "racist" for Pitts to use the phrase "somebody ought to pull his black card". He says that "walking a mile in someone else's skin" is essentially trite, but when they don't go deep enough to experience his not-so-"mysterious and exotic" blackness then a person fails and it damages their racial street cred. "Drop your presumptions...and listen to somebody". It goes both ways. One of my good friends is black, although not that that factoid matters. When he walked downtown Wichita and rarely saw a black professional person's face, he lamented. When he moved from Wichita to Virginia and saw black professionals who were numerous, and remarkably "normal" he was so pleased that he had to tell me all about it. And yet Pitts would also excoriate these people for "not being black enough", for "being white", and he would likely "pull their black cards" too.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 2 months ago

The "black card" comment was made specifically in regard to the equating of a do-rag with a confederate battle flag, which is so idiotic that it bears no comparison to your examples.

tomatogrower 5 years, 2 months ago

Symbols mean a lot. Why would you wear a swastika if you weren't a Nazi. Yes, at one time that symbol was used in many eastern religions, but Hitler changed all that. The confederate flag was at one time a flag of some states who thought they could destroy the Union, but it didn't happen, and since then it has been widely used by white supremacist groups. So if you don't consider yourself a racist, don't wear it. Words and symbols change. That's why my grandkids giggle if I say I'm going out to buy a pair of thongs. The word had a totally different meaning when I grew up. They are now called flip flops.

Until I got brave enough to tell people to shut up when they told racist jokes or made racist comments, I heard plenty. The southern woman whose son went to the same daycare as mine bemoaning the fact that in Kansas her son would have to go to school with Nwords. The store owner who called the police if Haskell students shoplifted, but just gave a lecture to white KU students who shoplifted. The factory manager who hired women to fill his "quota", because the one black he had hired was uneducated and couldn't read a measuring tape, so apparently all blacks couldn't read a measuring tape. I could write a book about the stupidity of racists. I can't imagine walking in these people's footsteps. Yes, someone once said "I just didn't grow up with any black people." Why is that an excuse for poor behavior? If you really think that racism still doesn't exist, I think you'd better get out of your bunker more often.

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