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 Paisley’s Confederate battle flag shirt. The song, 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, 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: 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 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 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 Paisley finds this skin impossible to walk in, the reason is doubtless simple:
He’s never truly tried.
• Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.