I can’t decide if I’m relieved or annoyed that Brad Paisley and LL Cool J released “Accidental Racist” while I was off the grid in Mexico. But their awkward melange of country and hip-hop, and even more awkward effort at racial dialogue has produced some great writing, whether it’s Ta-Nehisi on the choice of LL Cool J to provide racial cover rather than another rapper to provide a real half of a dialogue or Alan Pyke on the song as an attempt to heal America’s racial wounds with a fist bump. What I’m actually most struck by in the song, though, is its title, and what the idea that you can be “accidentally racist” means:
Most definitions of “accident” require that an incident that fits that description meet two criteria: that the event in question be both unintended and unforseeable. And it’s characteristic of our conversations about race that when someone causes offense, they insist that they aren’t culpable because their actions or speech were unintended, ignoring the question of possible foresight. It’s a means of defending yourself that puts responsibility for offense on the person who is offended, painting them as paranoid, suspicious, and generally lacking in good faith, and that allows people who are careless about race to avoid actual responsibility for hurting others. And it’s a defense that would be impossible for most people to make if they stepped back and weighed the question of whether, despite their intentions, their actions or speech could be foreseen to cause harm or summon up painful history.
Paisley’s first verse on “Accidental Racist” follows this formula to a T. He wants “the man that waited on me / At the Starbucks down on Main” to know that he doesn’t intend to telegraph his racial politics, that “The only thing I meant to say / Is I’m a Skynyrd fan.” But it doesn’t require prodigious powers of prognostication to be aware that Lynyrd Skynyrd is a band with a complex racial history, and that the Confederate national and battle flags are hurtful emblems to a lot of people. Expressing confusion that “The red flag on my chest somehow is / Like the elephant in the corner of the south” isn’t genuine surprise: it’s playing dumb, denying foresight that’s available to anyone even mildly aware of American racial politics and history. And refusing to engage in that process of thinking before you speak, or sing, or put on a t-shirt (or hell, buy a Skynyrd shirt that has a hot lady and the American flag mocked up to look like a tattoo, instead) isn’t an accident. It’s a deliberate decision, one born out of a decision to place your own comfort or convenience over the needs of other people.
Defending the song on Good Morning America today, LL Cool J insisted that “Hate can’t drive out hate, only love can. So what we’re talking about is compassion.” I don’t necessarily disagree with that sentiment. But for an act or person to meet the definition of compassionate requires more than a bland and friendly neutrality. Compassion requires both engagement and consideration for other people, and often some sacrifice. It’s leaving the Confederate Flag in the drawer at home and finding a better symbol of anti-racist Southern pride, not expecting other people not to inconvenience you because you’re really a nice guy.
And the thing is, thinking a little longer and reaching a little deeper isn’t actually exceptionally painful. I once published a list of women writers who magazines should commission assignments from in an effort to shame national publications for not doing better, and hit the publish button without scanning the list to see if I’d included women of color. I hadn’t. I hadn’t intended to cause offense, or to fail to promote non-white women, but I also hadn’t checked myself—I’d skipped the foresight half of the equation. The totally justifiable reaction to the list was incredibly useful for me. I always do an intersectional spot-check now when I’m publishing lists, and I’ve tried to do more to highlight the work of women of color, particularly in television, where they are dramatically underrepresented on the creator and writer side. Doing this causes me precisely zero pain, and has lead me to the work of interesting people, and to interesting facts, like the number of women of color who have emerged from Seth MacFarlane’s writers’ rooms.
So what depresses me about “Accidental Racist” isn’t just that it’s a way of dodging responsibility, or refusing to engage on painful and uncomfortable subjects. It’s to a certain extent a fundamentally hopeless song, full of deep pessimism about our capacity to actually engage race in a substantive way, choosing historical amnesia—LL Cool J’s “I’ll forget the iron chains”—instead of actual work. “It ain’t like you and me can re-write history,” Paisley sings. That’s certainly true, but it’s also entirely besides the point. We can study history and be aware of the systems and allocations of privilege it’s left behind, and consider how we benefit from them. This may not always be comfortable work. But it’s far from impossible. And the benefits and pleasures of engaging with our past, doing less harm to others, and truly engaging with people whose experiences are not our own are far more considerable than a hollow promise to forgive and forget.