April 14, 2013

“Accidental Racist”

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Early last week, Brad Paisley and LL Cool J released a song titled, “Accidental Racist.” Since its release, the song has faced a flurry of critical reaction, and not without reason. In the chorus Paisley claims, “I’m just a white man, comin’ to you from the southland … I’m proud of where I’m from, but not everything we’ve done…” to which Cool J later responds, “I wish you understood what the world is really like when you’re livin’ in the hood … 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.”

With lyrics like that, it is unsurprising that the song has been met with such a critical reception. While the artists most likely had the best of intentions, to discuss race and history and where the country needs to go, these intentions were not adequately conveyed. That being said, maybe there is something to be said for a controversial song: it sparks a conversation that needs to be had.

Since first reading an article about “accidental racism” early last week, I have listened to the song several times, trying to see where the artists were coming from: after this repeated – perhaps excessive, if you ask my roommates – listening, there are several lines I just cannot seem to forget.

First, Paisley sings, “It ain’t like you and me can rewrite history…” No, we cannot rewrite history and, no, our generation did not cause all of the problems, but we are not without blame. And, we have a responsibility to ensure that 100 years from now when our grandchildren look back, we have made a world they can be proud to live in, a world without racial tension and divide.

“It ain’t like I can walk a mile in someone else’s skin…” No, we cannot possibly understand the experiences and the history of every person we know, but we can try. We can recognize that what we think we know is not always right, and that other people know just as much, if not more, than we do. As Cornell students, this is possibly one of the hardest lessons to learn: we are not always correct. There are multiple ways to remember an event, and our view of history is not necessarily the only view. So don’t try to walk a mile in someone else’s skin, but do ask them what it’s like to be in that skin every day.

“If you don’t judge my gold chains, I’ll forget the iron chains.” I cannot pretend to understand what it is like to be descended from slavery, but I can try, every day, to sympathize and empathize with people who are different from me. I can listen to their ideas, concerns, and histories, and I can celebrate their triumphs. I can be a friend to all kinds of people.

At the end of the song, Paisley and Cool J sing/rap back and forth: in the final verse, Paisley says, “I’m a son of the new south,” to which Cool J responds, “The past is the past, you feel me?” The past is the past, huh? If that were the case, why were there Jim Crow laws until fifty years ago? Why are there still crosses being burned and people being beaten for the color of their skin or their sexual orientation? It is simpler to pretend that we, as a nation, have come so far in the past 150 years; and don’t get me wrong – we have made great progress. This nation truly is the land of free speech and opportunity, but we still have a long way to go. And the journey starts with maintaining open, productive, two-way dialogues about race.

Talking about race can be hard; at times, it can feel damn near impossible to truly convey our thoughts and emotions. Sometimes, like in the case of Brad Paisley and LL Cool J, we have the best intentions, but fail to adequately articulate our meaning. Sometimes, like in the case of recently released movie 42 (shameless plug: it was incredible, and I absolutely recommend everyone sees it), we are forced to think about different perspectives in history, both looking at the similarities and attempting to understand the differences in views. We are also inspired by the stories of heroes who have gone before us and reminded that life has not always been easy for everyone and that, for some people, it is still incredibly difficult.

The important thing to remember is that being even “accidentally racist” is not acceptable. We must all work to embrace diversity, but also acknowledge one another’s history and struggles. We must celebrate differences, but recognize our shared future. Most importantly, though, we must take care to have constructive dialogue about race and to listen to each other’s views.

Original Author: Jessica Pachak