Symbols and Accidental Racism

Someone recently pointed me to the song Accidental Racist, by Brad Paisley (feat. LL Cool J). The lyrics:

“Accidental Racist”

(Brad Paisley, feat. Ll Cool J)

To the man that waited on me at the Starbucks down on Main, I hope you understand

When I put on that t-shirt, the only thing I meant to say is I’m a Skynyrd fan

The red flag on my chest somehow is like the elephant in the corner of the south

And I just walked him right in the room

Just a proud rebel son with an ‘ol can of worms

Lookin’ like I got a lot to learn but from my point of view

 

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

Our generation didn’t start this nation

We’re still pickin’ up the pieces, walkin’ on eggshells, fightin’ over yesterday

And caught between southern pride and southern blame

 

They called it Reconstruction, fixed the buildings, dried some tears

We’re still siftin’ through the rubble after a hundred-fifty years

I try to put myself in your shoes and that’s a good place to begin

But it ain’t like I can walk a mile in someone else’s skin

 

‘Cause I’m a white man livin’ in the southland

Just like you I’m more than what you see

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 mistakes

That a bunch of folks made long before we came

And caught between southern pride and southern blame

 

Dear Mr. White Man, I wish you understood

What the world is really like when you’re livin’ in the hood

Just because my pants are saggin’ doesn’t mean I’m up to no good

You should try to get to know me, I really wish you would

Now my chains are gold but I’m still misunderstood

I wasn’t there when Sherman’s March turned the south into firewood

I want you to get paid but be a slave I never could

Feel like a new fangled Django, dodgin’ invisible white hoods

So when I see that white cowboy hat, I’m thinkin’ it’s not all good

I guess we’re both guilty of judgin’ the cover not the book

I’d love to buy you a beer, conversate and clear the air

But I see that red flag and I think you wish I wasn’t here

 

I’m just a white man

(If you don’t judge my do-rag)

Comin’ to you from the southland

(I won’t judge your red flag)

Tryin’ to understand what it’s like not to be

I’m proud of where I’m from

(If you don’t judge my gold chains)

But not everything we’ve done

(I’ll forget the iron chains)

it ain’t like you and me can re-write history

(Can’t re-write history baby)

 

Oh, Dixieland

(The relationship between the Mason-Dixon needs some fixin’)

I hope you understand what this is all about

(Quite frankly I’m a black Yankee but I’ve been thinkin’ about this lately)

I’m a son of the new south

(The past is the past, you feel me)

And I just want to make things right

(Let bygones be bygones)

Where all that’s left is southern pride

(RIP Robert E. Lee but I’ve gotta thank Abraham Lincoln for freeing me, know what I mean)

It’s real, it’s real

It’s truth

A friend asked my my reaction, so here are my initial thoughts.

Brad Paisley + LL Cool J = Awesome. I’m so glad to see such diverse genres and personalities in collaboration. This gives me hope.

The POWER of symbols is that they communicate on multiple levels. The PROBLEM with symbols is that they communicate on multiple levels. The rebel flag (much like the “Church You Can Believe In” billboards or the soda fountain picture from the WSF brochure may have one intended message, but unfortunately communicate the exclusion of certain individuals.

As a side note, we tend to blame the recipients of the miscommunication and accuse them of being overly sensitive rather than revising our message. However, let me point out the Chevy Nova debacle from the 80’s. Chevy attempted to sell the Nova in Mexico and couldn’t figure out why people wouldn’t buy it, until someone pointed out that No Va = no go in Spanish. Rather than blame the people for misunderstanding the message, they changed their branding.

Fashion, whether intentionally or unintentionally, communicates a message. I’m not saying that you SHOULD judge someone who wears a rebel flag or saggy pants (or God-forbid, both at the same time), but I will acknowledge that you communicate something when you choose to do those things. Anticipate that people will respond to your message.

Lastly, the reason we as a nation can’t let bygones be bygones is because we continue to experience no only the results and effects of racism, but also because it’s built into our system and therefore there is a current and ongoing culture of racism (and also because there are racists in our country).

Those are my initial, off the cuff, thoughts.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Symbols and Accidental Racism

  1. Garland, good stuff. Russell Moore and Thabiti Anyabwile had a really good 35 minute discussion on this. Take a listen when you get a chance.

    http://www.russellmoore.com/2013/04/19/accidental-racist-by-brad-paisley-and-ll-cool-j/