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The new song 'Accidental Racist' by country music star Brad Paisley has done more than start a conversation on racial issues.
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The new song 'Accidental Racist' by country music star Brad Paisley has done more than start a conversation on racial issues.

Paisley song sparks cultural storm

By Jesse Washington
The Associated Press

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Southern white men don’t usually drive racial dialogue. For as long as race has riven America, they have been depicted more often as the problem than the solution.

So after country music star Brad Paisley recently released his new song “Accidental Racist,” what happened next was hardly surprising: days of widespread criticism about his attempt to detail the challenges facing a “white man from the Southland” and his recruitment of LL Cool J to rap a black perspective.

(STORY CONTINUES BELOW)

The song sparked a predictable blaze week on television, talk radio and the Internet. USA Today asked if it was an “epic fail.” At The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates titled his analysis, “‘Accidental Racist’ Is Actually Just Racist.” More than a few people ridiculed it as “the worst song ever.”

Some elements of the outcry, however, raise less predictable questions: Where does naivete turn into ignorance, and then into racism? What is the basis of modern Southern pride? Possibly most important is the question, should we grade racial attitudes on a curve?

Paisley begins the song with an anecdote about a black man taking offense to his Confederate flag T-shirt. “The only thing I meant to say is I’m a Skynyrd fan,” Paisley sings, referring to the pioneering Southern rock group.

That scene actually happened to Paisley in real life, said Charlie Cook, programming director for West Virginia Radio Corp. and a member of the Country Music Association’s board of directors. Cook heard Paisley discuss the song with a group of industry executives.

“He sat down and thought about it from another person’s perspective and said, ‘If I offended you, it was accidental,’” Cook said. “I think it’s really from his heart.”

That doesn’t matter, said many of the critical voices. They said it’s the result that counts – a song that, to them, turns some of the most stinging flashpoints of American racial history into aw-shucks anecdotes. They are receiving a message very different from the one Paisley intended: the country-music staple of trying to figure out one’s experiences through song.

Ignorance is no excuse for Demetria Irwin, who savaged “Accidental Racist” in a piece on the black news and culture website The Grio.

“I think he had good intentions. I think he genuinely wanted to explore a topic,” Irwin, who is black, said in an interview. However, “I don’t believe he doesn’t know what the Confederate flag symbolizes and what it means. There’s nothing accidental about that.”

“There’s also just a general entitlement that some white people might have, the whole white privilege thing, being totally unaware of black culture in a real sense,” she also said.

The song’s black culture was provided by LL Cool J, whose verses widely were panned as shallow. Coates said that while rap is full of artists who are passionate about racial issues, LL Cool J is not one of them.

“The only real reason to call up LL is that he is black and thus must have something insightful to say about the Confederate flag,” wrote Coates, who is black. “The assumption that there is no real difference among black people is exactly what racism is.”

Choosing LL Cool J, he said, is like “assuming that Paisley must know something about barbecue because he’s Southern.”

Being Southern comes with its own set of assumptions and stereotypes, some of them negative ones created by the low points of the region’s history. Southern pride largely is a defensive reaction to such stigmas, said Eric Weisbard, a music critic and American studies professor at the University of Alabama.

So while some might see “Accidental Racist” as a ham-handed attempt to start a dialogue, it’s part of a long tradition in which Southern musicians “try to talk about who they are in answer to what others dismissively assume they are,” Weisbard wrote on npr.org.

Much of the friction around the song comes from people who don’t understand this history, Weisbard said in an interview: “We’re as segregated culturally as we often are socially.”

Many people are proud of being from the “heartland,” from New York or from other American places, Weisbard said. But, “The South has been branded a problem for the country as a whole at least since the Civil War.”

“In every generation, there’s a new way in which white Southerners have marginalized themselves,” he said, “and the rest of America has to think about what that means.”

Paisley gave America something to think about with the chorus of the song:

“I’m just a white man comin’ to you from the Southland.

“Tryin’ 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 re-write history.”

———

At the end of the chorus he sings, “Caught between Southern pride and Southern blame.”

That’s a gray area for Chris Newman, 25, a white West Virginia University graduate student who grew up in Lexington, Ky. Southern pride often is “flirting a fine line between being offensive and supporting historical heritage,” he said.

Hospitality, driving your truck through the mud, floating down a river or drinking bourbon in Kentucky are great ways to embrace Southern culture, he said.

“But I don’t run around wearing Confederate T-shirts,” Newman said. “I have Lynyrd Skynyrd T-shirts, but they don’t have stars and bars on them.”

That’s a deliberate choice: “If I respect somebody, I’m going to make sure I don’t offend them,” he said.

Newman doesn’t believe “accidental racism” exists. But Luke Laird, a Nashville songwriter who has penned many chart-topping hits, has “absolutely” seen it while growing up in a small, mostly white town in western Pennsylvania.

“There were people who said things (that) I know if they actually knew what it meant, they would be horrified,” said Laird, who is white.

Back in high school, Laird saw a Hank Williams Jr. shirt with a Confederate flag on it and thought, “That looks cool.”

“To be completely honest, and it’s probably just ignorance, but growing up I never really thought a lot about that flag and what it meant,” Laird said.

“We all want to treat everyone equally, but the reality is we don’t always do that,” Laird said. “The reality is, it takes more of a conscious effort to try and see where the other people are coming from.”

Comments

As a Black man this is just

As a Black man this is just another song, people get offended by songs all the time. Back in the late 80's and 90's Public Enemy voiced opinions in songs that some people found offensive. I believe if someone don't like the song, don't listen to it. There is too much happening in the world and our own backyards to allow a song to ruffle feathers. Also, @ clawpower, its not just blacks that act racial, its all nationalities in rocky mount. The same thing you have faced from the Blacks, I have faced coming from Arabs, Mexicans, Whites, and Blacks. Now I do see color, but I try not to let that dictate my actions towards people of any race. Also you need to check the various studies concerning correctional and juridical practices, you will see that Blacks do represent a large prison population, but that is because we do not receive the same consideration that other races do in sentencing. Also the media especially here, focuses on Black crimes more and those crimes reach the news faster than white crimes. This still is no excuse, but I am just telling the facts.

“Accidental Racist

Hi, I've been a resident here in rocky mount for about 25 years, I never lived in a society predominately black, however did have alot of black friends,,I read the article on Brad Pazley concerning his new song, accidental racist. I have listened to 95.5 radio as well as a few other stations which was playing rap music,,I don't consider it music but a bunch of words put together to rhyme , now I was totally appauled when I heard some of the vulgarity comming from alot of those songs , you talk about racial, " crackerhead" "white boy" you name it and cursing!! and they play it loud,why? They want to fuss about one song from Brad Pasley, they have no room, they need to cleanup their own trash. I also had been treated the same way in Walmart here in Rocky mount. Some of the blacks working there are extremely racial,they have a slick way of communicating it and won't say a word, body lauguage says it all. My ancestors came from Germany and Italy and had nothing to do with the slavery issue, shoot they had enough trouble making it themselves. I needed to write this to speakup to those who seems to be the first to fuss about this racism issue, I personally do not look at color,however, its hard to do when this people seem to be the most population in the prisons, as well as all you see caught doing crime! thanks

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