Summer Sale! Get unlimited digital access for 13 weeks for $13.
Opinion
News Opinion

'Accidental Racist,' willful ignorance

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 Mr. Paisley's Confederate battle flag shirt. The song, Mr. 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, Mr. 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: Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Paisley finds this skin impossible to walk in, the reason is doubtless simple:

He's never truly tried.

Leonard Pitts, a Maryland resident, is a columnist for The Miami Herald. Readers may contact him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
Related Content
  • Batts on officers "taking a knee" [Poll]

    Batts on officers "taking a knee" [Poll]

    Is former Baltimore police commissioner Anthony Batts write that officers “took a knee” after April’s riots?

  • The point of no return on Iran

    The point of no return on Iran

    In aviation it's called the point of no return. That point in a flight when catastrophe strikes and the airplane, because of low fuel or mechanical impairment, cannot make it safely back to its take-off point.

  • Iran agreement stands

    Iran agreement stands

    President Barack Obama won a major victory this week when Maryland's Barbara Mikulski, after much deliberation, became the 34th U.S. senator to announce her support for the nuclear accord with Iran. Senator Mikulski's pledge to back the president's veto of an expected Republican-sponsored resolution...

  • Mandel's civil rights legacy

    Mandel's civil rights legacy

    I have greatly appreciated the near-universal and thunderous praise bestowed upon former Gov. Marvin Mandel, who died on Sunday at the age of 95. Governor Mandel provided brilliant and visionary leadership during his 10 years as our governor, and many of his achievements, including the reorganization...

  • Shattered lives

    Shattered lives

    The headline over Sunday's report on Baltimore's spike in homicides during the month of July read "45 murders in 31 days." It was a record readers of The Sun were already aware of, but we suspect too many of us viewed it with trepidation but not enough empathy. After so many years of violence,...

  • Post-Freddie Gray, two poles of Baltimore leadership

    Post-Freddie Gray, two poles of Baltimore leadership

    The return of the Freddie Gray case to center stage in Baltimore yesterday offered us personifications of the two poles of our city's experience of the last few months. In former Police Commissioner Anthony Batts, who resurfaced for a panel discussion two months after he was fired, we got a reminder...

Comments
Loading
81°