'Accidental Racist' Is Not a Joke

Ellen DeGeneres had Brad Paisley on her show today to talk in part about "Accidental Racist," his very-strange, very-controversial track with LL Cool J. He mouthed some stuff about talk radio and Hollywood screwing up the conversation on race, and then, as Jezebel narrates:

Ellen prompted: "You're basically saying..." And Paisley replied: "I don't know."

Pretty much. But despite how Paisley makes it sound, it's not like this is a harmless song pointing out how "the Mason-Dixon needs some fixing"—it itself is part of what needs fixing. David Graham here at The Atlantic got into the particular, not-than-uncommon insanity of the track's references to the Confederate Flag, and as Ta-Nehisi Coates put it on Twitter, "This entire song is an argument for Black History for, like, the next 10000000 years."

But the best conversation I've seen about the song, and what exactly is screwed-up about it, happened on Tumblr between the writers Nick Murray, Alexander Ostroff, and Rahawa Haile. Murray has a comprehensive and fascinating overview of Paisley's career and how the corniness of "Accidental Racist" fits in, but Haile gets to the core about why it's not the kind of thing that can just be laughed off or chalked up as a novelty:

My problem isn't the Skynyrd shirt, but rather the suggestion that the perpetuation of racial intolerance in today's society is exclusively the product of past harm, so let's move on. The notion is infuriating. There is so, so, so much active hatred in this country against people of color. There is no "I'm just a white man." It isn't just the confederate flag on his shirt. I am not just a listener.

I am an Eritrean-American woman from Florida, and I hate that I had to write about what's ultimately an atrocious song (context aside) because my largely white music critic friends are cringing in silence or downplaying this monumental failure at reconciliation between the races.

"Accidental Racist" is racial mansplaining, whether you like it or not.

It's worth reading that conversation in full, here. And, of course, never listening to the song again.

Spencer Kornhaber is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he edits the Entertainment channel. More

Before coming to The Atlantic, he worked as an editor for AOL's Patch.com and as a staff writer at Village Voice Media's OC Weekly. He has also written for Spin, The AV Club, RollingStone.com, Field & Stream, and The Orange County Register.


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