OK, Brad Paisley. You don’t want people to judge you because of your region’s history or how you look. A noble sentiment. So, why doesn’t “Accidental Racist” work? (I’m looking at the song solely as a form of communication and setting the historical and cultural issues of the song aside — for now.)
If you look at the lyrics carefully, the song is really a conversation between a fan of Lynyrd Skynyrd (who covered the same issue with better music and smarter lyrics) and a guy at Starbucks who is ticked off by the Confederate flag on his shirt.
The verse “the man that waited on me at the Starbucks” brings up certain images as clear as the “do-rag” and “red flag.” The Starbucks guy probably has tattoos and body piercings. He has Greenpeace and Coexist bumper stickers on his ’04 Prius. When he’s not using his MacBook Air to write his zombie apocalypse novel, he reads Gawker and Huffington Post. And, he’s also white, right?
You thought the LL Cool J character was the man at Starbucks? No, he isn’t. For starters, I don’t know too many people at Starbucks who wear gold chains on the job. (The chains can fall in the blender, get caught in the blades — serious Worker’s Comp issue.) It also seems that southern whites who want to wave their “red flags” have the biggest conflicts with liberal whites who declare it racist. (This is the point of the Watergate reference in “Sweet Home Alabama.”)
So, who is LL Cool J supposed to be? An African American who Paisley brings along to show he’s not racist in a “some of my best friends are…” sort of way?
The problem is that it isn’t clear. And if you’re going to tackle a subject as difficult as racism and regional blame, you have to be clear.
You also have to take a stand. So, you want people to understand why you wear the Confederate flag on your shirt. Then what? Do you want us to put flowers on the grave of Jefferson Davis? For a better song that takes a stand and makes a point, listen to “Bumper of My SUV” by Chely Wright. It’s also a call for understanding, but one that makes clear who she is and what matters to her.
“Accidental Racist” doesn’t do any of this. It’s a muddle of a story that doesn’t stand for anything, especially with lyrics like this:
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
Our generation didn’t start this nation
And we’re still paying for the mistakes
That a bunch of folks made long before we came
It sounds like Paisley is trying have it both ways: He wants to be proud he’s from the South, but he wants to slink away from its history. He wants to wear the Confederate flag, but he doesn’t want to take responsibility for its meaning. Skynyrd and Wright can admit fault and express doubt, but they still step up and take ownership. Paisley doesn’t. That doesn’t make him a racist, but that makes him sound weak and insincere.
Every place has shame in its history. I live in California, which Americans took from the Mexicans, who took it from the Spanish, who took it from the Natives. My state sent Japanese Americans to internment camps, segregated schools, and acquitted four police officers who beat an African American motorist. Still, the latest fashion trend around here are t-shirts with California state flags.
If you’re going to be proud of where you’re from, you need to take responsibility for the things you shouldn’t be proud of, and not brush it off by saying it’s all your ancestors’ fault. Besides, what greater pride can you have for your state, region, or country than when its learns from its mistakes. Then, you can wave your “red flag” with pride — not as a symbol of a past that you want to ignore — but as a symbol of what you’ve overcome.