EDITORIAL: Attempting To Understand Brad Paisley’s “Accidental Racist”

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If you have somehow been able to avoid the Twittersphere’s hottest music-related topic of the week, “Accidental Racist” is a new song from country superstar Brad Paisley that also features legendary hip hop artist LL Cool J. The song appears on Paisley’s recently released album and has come into the light since the record’s release for lyrics that many deem to be in poor taste. I usually do not write about country music, but every now and then a song or moment comes along that demands you put thought to text and this, my friends, is one of those songs.

Before we can examine the song and its impact, we need to all be on the same page. So without further ado, click below to stream “Accidental Racist.”

Pretty amazing that two platinum-selling artists wrote this, right?

The motivation behind “Accidental Racist” seems full of the best intentions, but unfortunately good vibrations isn’t enough to make touchy subject matter translate to mainstream pop audiences. Paisley opens the track with an apology to a waiter who was apparently offended by a Lynyrd Skynyrd t-shirt that featured a confederate flag. Paisley continues by explaining that he’s just a proud rebel son who looks like he has a lot to learn, but that from his point of view (and this is where the chorus comes in) he’s simply celebrating where he comes from. He’s a hardworking American, just like the waiter, and he’s expressing his right to celebrate his heritage regardless of what certain imagery associated with that culture may indicate to other people. The full chorus, at least the first time it appears, is as follows:

“I’m just a white man

Coming to you from the Southland

Trying 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 rewrite history

Our generation didn’t start this nation

We’re still picking up the pieces

Walking on eggshells

Fighting over yesterday

And caught between southern pride

And southern blame”

Those eggshells Paisley refers to seem to be symbolic relics of an era where slavery was rampant in the South, while it’s my impression that the fighting over yesterday is a reference to people confusing pride in one’s heritage with glorifying slavery. If that is the case, Paisley has a point (to an extent), but he doesn’t exactly help matters by opening the second verse by referring to the Reconstruction Era as a time where the government simply “fixed some buildings, dried some tears.” The truth of the matter is that the government stepped in to help facilitate the integration of blacks into a society where they were recently considered someone’s property. To gloss over this crucial point of cultural evolution with such disregard as to summarize it with rebuilding cities and drying tears is just awful. This is the point in our history where our nation became one after years of separation, and while surely there were those who protested (and continue to), the vast majority of the confederacy slowly began learning to accept people of other ethnicities as equals because of the work done during this time. Paisley seems to attempt to make note of this with the lines “I’ll try to put myself in your shoes, And that’s a good place to begin/It ain’t like I can walk a mile, In someone else’s skin,” but its a sentiment that hits with mixed reaction. Is he saying that he’ll try to accept others, but ultimately never can because he is incapable of allowing himself to see the world through their eyes? I’m not sure, honestly, but it’s not exactly the statement of brotherly love you would hope an artist in such a position would express. It seems closer to a plea for acceptance of one’s refusal to grow than anything else, with Paisley making excuses for others lack of understanding and/or acceptance based on their geographical location and sense of heritage. “I am who I am because of who made me and where I’m from, so what’s wrong with that,” if you will.

The second chorus plays similar to the first, only this time the lines “Just like you, I’m more than what you see” replacing “Trying to understand what it’s like not to be.” If this is Paisley’s attempt to say just because someone’s appearance makes them seem racist that doesn’t mean they are, he again is making a honest sentiment that warrants sharing with others, but it’s the fact he seems to draw a correlation between the plight of African Americans and in the South and the tense cultural times that followed the Civil War to the way people view white people wearing Lynyrd Skynyrd shirts emblazoned with confederate flags, which is actually seems more offensive than senseless (it’s definitely both).

It’s hard to imagine how a song that has dug itself into a trench this far could get much worse, but then LL Cool J’s contributions begin, and things go to a whole new level.

Like Paisley, LL uses his verse to tell a story of judging a book by its cover from his own point of view. He details how even though he’s rich he still feels misunderstood, but admits he thinks negatively about white men he sees in cowboy hats. He even goes as far as to compare himself to a “new-fangled Django,” a reference to Quentin Tarantino’s slave owner killing bounty hunter from Django Unchained. All of LL’s contributions up to this point are questionable, but not really too controversial in any way. If anything, the similarities depicted in the beginning of both artists’ verses is about the only time when “Accidental Racist” makes any point at all. If the idea that people of all ethnicities have issues battling preconceived notions of others was the only idea explored, we probably wouldn’t have much to complain about, but of course it’s not and there is still much to explore.

When the chorus finally rolls around to close out the song, Paisley and LL Cool J begin swapping lines. Paisleys lines mirror the second verse, with the exception of the closing lines which read “Oh Dixieland, I hope you understand what this is all about/I’m a son of the New South, and I just want to make things rights/Where all that’s left is Souther Pride.” This idea of letting the past stay in the past is echoed in LL’s line, but it’s then taken too far with the line “If you forget about my gold chains, I’ll forget the iron chains,” which seems to convey that LL is cool with knowing his ancestors were slaves as long as we can accept that he’s rich. That as long as the white man recognizes his success all prior transgressions can be forgiven, as if money was the indicator of equality when every major battle, be it between nations or cultures, has been fueled by the almighty dollar. Slave owners may have had the money then, but he has some now, so the best course of action is to just wipe the slate clean and move forward?

For me, the overarching theme of “Accidental Racist” seems to be that we need to learn to accept the fact other’s have preconceived notions about our cultures or ethnicities because of their own heritage and that they are not responsible for evolving along with the rest of the civilized world. Brad Paisley and LL Cool J are welcome to their opinion, of course, but I must disagree. While it’s true that we are all the result of generations that came before us and that their actions do no reflect our own motivations, we as people must recognize and be responsible the messages we send with our actions. Just because you’re raised to believe one thing in no way handicaps you from learning to see the world from a different perspective. You might not be able to wear someone else’s skin, but we certainly can wrap our minds around the concept that even though we are all raised individually we must rise above those cultural groupings in order to function and exist as a global community. We must work together in spite of past transgressions, not forgetting them, but learning from them and working together towards a future where equality is more than just an ideal thrown around by theorists incapable of making any real impact on the real. Accept yourself for who you are, but recognize others accept themselves as well, and that somehow we all must come to accept one another if we are ever going to grow.

Written by: James Shotwell

James Shotwell

James Shotwell is the founder of Under The Gun Review. He loves writing about music and movies almost as much as he loves his two fat cats. He's also the co-founder of Antique Records and the Marketing Coordinator for Haulix. You should probably follow him on Twitter.

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