Aren’t we all accidental racists?

Brad Paisley and rapper LL Cool J have just released a new country duet called “Accidental Racist.”  It’s caused quite a lot of buzz, with some saying it’s “a model for exactly how not to start [a] conversation” about racism in America.

Yes and no.

I think Paisley’s heart was in the right place, but some of the song might miss the mark.  But not all of it, or even most of it.  Let’s discuss (and try not to kill each other in so doing).

I just read through all the lyrics.  And suggest you do too, before reading any more about this topic.  It’s a nice song.  Paisley is clearly trying to do something good here.  Whether he accomplishes it, is another question.

The song assumes we only judge southerners by their past, and not their present

The biggest problem with the song is that it seems to suggest that all the problems are in the past, and that southerners are being judged for the sins of their fathers.

Yes, and no.  First, here’s a good explanation of what’s wrong with the song from a guy named Conscious on YouTube:

I think it was a poor song. I think the sentiments relayed are relatable to a whole lot of people. I feel if Brad Paisley is being genuine, it’s brave of him to sing such a song considering his constituents. There are a few lines that are very powerful. I think LL Cool J’s verse was wack but still it expressed some real issues. This type of song is in no way new. I think seeing as we’re in this made up ‘post-racial’ America this song is regarded as tremendously terrible not because of how bad it is song-wise but by how it’s speaking on something that hasn’t changed in America.

I’ll be the first to admit that, growing up in Chicago, I never gave two licks about the South.  I had studied the Civil War, and the civil rights era, in my high school history class, and that’s about as close to either issue that I ever got.  Then I moved to DC, at the age of 21, and about eight years after that started working on gay rights issue, and started learning more about the South, past and present.  And my image of the region started to sink.  And not because of its history, but because of its present.

Sadly, there’s still too much bigotry in the South

Stories like this – about four teenage girls in Georgia trying to throw the first inter-racial prom in their high school’s history – both give me hope, and make me extremely sad.

While it’s great the girls, two white and two black, have the gumption to do this, what the heck are we doing having whites-only college dances in the year 2013?  I didn’t even know high schools did such things any more.  And the fact that the high school wasn’t made a laughing stock in Georgia, and its sports teams boycotted across the state, and civil rights activists didn’t shut the school down, makes me less hopeful about real change ever fully coming to the South.

So, yeah, we do judge all southerners by things they weren’t responsible for.  And sometimes it’s unfair (perhaps a lot of times).  So Paisley raises a fair point, especially for those southerners like him, who seem to “get it.”

But we also judge southerners by the fact that far too many of their politicians are still racists, far too many of their states are still trying to undermine voting rights, and far too many of their citizens are homophobes, anti-women, anti-immigrant, and the list goes on.  All you need is look at the South’s congressional delegations, and the “new South” starts looking a lot like the old one.

So I will fault Paisley for that – I think too much of the song glosses over the fact that the reason a lot of us “judge” the South isn’t because of what people did in the 1860s or the 1960s, it’s because of the bigotry that seems a bit too prevalent even today.

But Paisley is right about the perils of “accidental racism”

Now for a word about the song title, “Accidental Racist.”  Paisley has a point here too.  He talks about “walkin’ on eggshells” when dealing with race issues.  And this point he makes is especially relevant there:

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

Brad Paisley

Brad Paisley

His point, I’d argue, is that we can and should try to do our best Atticus Finch and walk a mile in another man’s shoes.  But in the end, we can’t – not fully. I’m not sure any white person can fully appreciate what it’s like to be black in America, then or now.  And I doubt any straight person can fully understand what it’s like to be gay, or any man fully get the trials women going through on a daily basis simply because of their gender.

Accidental Sexism

A female reader pointed out to me, the other day, a series of articles about how women still get harassed on a regular basis just walking down the street.  I had always figured that, sure, a few crude guys still do this kind of thing, but I never realized it was still such a widespread problem for most women.  I’m a guy, I’ve given a lot of thought to women’s issues, I’ve done consulting work for Planned Parenthood, and I still never fully understood how bad women have it.  That, I think, is Paisley’s point.  And it’s a good one.

But what are the consequences of never fully walking in someone else’s shoes?  To mix my metaphors, it means that if you try to get involved in these issues, if you try to discuss them – write songs about them – you’d better walk on eggshells, because, even if your heart is in the right place, you’re likely to mess up, and you will get burned for it, badly.

This is a concern I’ve had for a while, not just on gay rights issues, but on issues of race, gender, and transgender, for starters.  On all of those issue, there’s a feeling that I’ve certainly felt, where you’re almost afraid to touch the issue at all, to write about it at all, to express any opinion, lest it be the “wrong” opinion, and you be labeled a racist, homophobe, misogynist, pro-rape, privileged cisgender trans-hater, bi-hater, etc.

I’m the first to admit that we’ve likely created this atmosphere on gay issues, and I’ve probably helped to create it.  We are so intent on finding every transgression against our people that, perhaps, sometimes we catch someone in our net who isn’t a gay-hater at all, but simply misspoke, or simply expressed an “incorrect” point of view because they didn’t know any better, but were open to discussion, and rather than rip them to shreds, perhaps we should have tried talking to them first.  But we don’t.  We destroy them.  Having said that, it is important to stand up to homophobia, and some comments do cross the line, and aren’t said in good faith.  The trick is having the finesse to discern the difference, and the masses aren’t known for their finesse.

Let me give you an example of a good question gone bad.

Accidental Homophobia

I’ve been asked before, by more than one straight person, how a gay marriage would actually work.  Meaning, who’s the wife and who’s the husband?  Now, I’m not entirely sure if they mean sexually (though I’ve also been asked, by nice people, “who’s the ‘top’ and who’s the ‘bottom'”), or are referring to outdated gender roles (wife stays home with the kids, husband goes to work).  But it would be easy to be offended by the question and shut the person down.  Or there was the time I came out to my dad, twenty years ago now, and he asked through tear-filled eyes whether science might be able to some day “cure” me.  I could have gotten ticked off, in either example, but I could tell that the questioners was sincere – and more than sincere, they were sympathetic, even if they didn’t quite “get” where I was coming from.  And I, and my movement, would gain far more from engaging these people kindly, than from slamming them for their “ignorance.”  Sometimes good people don’t ask good questions.

I’ve personally had this problem discussing race issues.  Even with friends and colleagues.  I invariably say something that “isn’t quite right” and they get ticked at me, when my intent for having the discussion was simply that I wanted to talk about issues of race and learn something about an area that I just don’t have much personal experience in.  But that wasn’t enough.  I got slammed down, and now I’m far more careful about saying, or writing, anything about race.

And there’s the rub.  Far from being learning experiences, sometimes when you’re burned for discussing an issue the “wrong” way, the lesson you learn is not to discuss the issue at all.  And while perhaps that’s a good lesson if the student is Fred Phelps or the Family Research Council, I don’t think it’s a good lesson if the person being silenced either is an ally, or wants to be an ally, and just doesn’t fully understand the issue, and wants to be able to talk about it.

Accidental Bi-phobia

I learned in the last month, for example, that I hate bisexuals.  This was news to me, since I’m one of the only gay people I know who even thinks bisexuality is real (far too many gay people think bisexuals are lying to themselves – that they’re actually gay, but are afraid of being “gay,” so they claim they’re bi, since it’s “cooler”).  But worse than my hate for bisexuals that’s so closeted I didn’t even know I had it, apparently every time I write or say anything about bisexuality, I set their civil rights movement back.  I was informed by a bi leader that I shouldn’t mention bisexuality ever again until I take a half hour sensitivity training.

Why did all this happen?  Because I wrote a post about Chris Christie flip-flopping and trying to split the baby in half on the notion that gays can be cured.  So I titled the post: “Chris Christie is bi on gays.”  That made me hateful.  Of course, I made a similar pun about gays this morning in a post titled “Immigration reform is so gay — or not,” about gay couples being cut from a proposed bipartisan immigration reform bill.  As a result of the bi title, I was informed that I was a lifelong bisexual-hater and that all the conversations I’ve had with gay people over the past twenty years, in which I’ve defended the existence of bisexuals, never happened. (I was also informed that I was lying when I said, truthfully, that far too many gay people I talk to simply dont’t believe bisexuality exists.) I was a hater, a liar, and an enemy of the bisexual cause.  Period.

I almost didn’t mention the bisexual story because I was advised by friends to just not mention it, or the issue, again.  It was the same advice I got on transgender issues – just stop writing about the issue all together, it’s just too dangerous.

Accidental Transphobia

But I’m not going to stop writing about transgender issues, even if I risk offending someone because I used the wrong pronoun, mentioned a forbidden aspect of the debate, or worse, questioned the conventional wisdom.  I think transgender people face real discrimination, and in many ways are years behind the gay rights cause in terms of visibility and public understanding, and their cause needs a public vetting.  So I still write about their issues, but boy I watch my back when I do. And the same thing goes for race, for gender issues and for lots more.  And while some may say “good, he’s being more careful,” I’m not just being more careful, I’m pulling punches, and sometimes not even writing about the issue at all, because I know I risk walking into a buzz-saw, and at some point, the benefits just don’t outweigh the risks.

I’m not sure where you draw the line.  I’m not always sure when someone is a bigot and when it’s just an accident.  But I do know that I’ve already seen Brad Paisley excoriated for writing what, to me at least, seemed a clear, sincere effort to address the issue of race from the perspective of someone who is sympathetic, wants to help, and has a large audience that could benefit from the discussion.

The easiest thing to do would be to ignore the issue, and let it fester forever and never be resolved.  Whether or not Paisley got it all right or got it all wrong, he deserves credit, and a civil debate, for at least trying.

Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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