Brad Paisley’s “Accidental Racist” Lyrics Breakdown: Just How Bad Is It?

LAS VEGAS, NV - SEPTEMBER 22:  Actor/rapper LL Cool J (L) and recording artist Brad Paisley appear backstage during the 2012 iHeartRadio Music Festival at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on September 22, 2012 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images for Clear Channel)
Posted on 04/08/2013 at 6:03 PM

Related To: Lyrics

The Popdust Files: brad paisley, ll cool j, racism

Brad Paisley is not a racist. He’s not an “accidental” one (whatever that means) or even an on-purpose one. The man just wants peace and racial harmony, and he’s collaborated with LL Cool J on a new song, “Accidental Racist,” to bring about the post-racial utopia he dreams of. And he’s achieved it, in a way—people of all races are joining hands and coming together as one to mock the song’s colossal wrongheadedness.

It’s not that “Accidental Racist” is hateful. Far from it! Paisley and LL Cool J open their hearts towards their brother man, and sincerely try to understand where the other one is coming from: “I’m just a white man / Coming to you from the Southland / Trying to understand what it’s like not to be.” Sure, it’s hamfisted, but at least Paisley is acknowledging that whiteness is not the default, that other people’s experiences are just as real as his own. “[I'm] looking like I’ve got a lot to learn,” he sings elsewhere in the song, which is the closest thing you’re going to get to a privilege-check in today’s popular music.

But beyond the good intentions, there’s a shocking amount of naivety on display in “Accidental Racist”, particularly for two men who’ve spent a combined 85 years living in American society. From most- to least-forgivable, their sins are:

CONFLATING PERSONAL PREJUDICE WITH INSTITUTIONALIZED RACISM: You wouldn’t know it from movies like The Help, but the history of racial oppression goes beyond some people being rude to some other people because of the color of their skin. But everyone messes this one up—even us!—so Brad and LL get a pass.

GLOSSING OVER SLAVERY AND JIM CROW AS “MISTAKES”: Calling your girlfriend your ex’s name is a mistake. Systematically robbing millions of people of their humanity goes a little further than that. For the sake of lyrical brevity we understand why Brad didn’t go into the whole history here, but there’s got to be a better two-syllable word that works in that spot.

SAMPLING “DIXIE” IN A SONG ABOUT RACE RELATIONS: Yes, it’s a catchy song. Yes, Abraham Lincoln liked it. This does not change the fact that it was the unofficial national anthem of a state built on white supremacy.

TIPPING A HAT TO THE “ANGRY BLACKS JUST WANT THE WHITE MAN’S MONEY” MEME: “I want you to get paid, but be a slave I never could,” raps LL. Why are those two thoughts next to each other?

MAKING THE WORST FALSE EQUIVALENCIES THE WORLD HAS EVER SEEN: The most poisonous of all the song’s rhetorical sins come in the coda, where Paisley and LL Cool J trade lines about making the world a better place. It’s cute, until you realize what they’re saying: “If you won’t judge my do-rag, I won’t judge your red [Confederate] flag.” In other words, LL won’t get mad about Brad sporting a symbol of white supremacy as long as Brad won’t get mad about … a random fashion choice that has nothing to do with him. Later, it gets worse: “If you forget my gold chains, I’ll forget the iron chains.” Is putting people who don’t like slavery on the same moral level as racists really worth that wordplay?

That’s the overwhelming message of the song: Yes, white southerners may have been pretty racist in the past, but as a result of that racism some people have negative feelings about the South—and isn’t that just as bad? If those people could just be less angry and forget about the racism, well then by golly, white southerners might stop being racist! For a guy who just wants to wear his Skynyrd shirt in peace, that’s a post-racial utopia worth singing about.

Listen to Brad Paisley and LL Cool J’s other collaboration here!

The full lyrics are below. You can play the song at the bottom of the post!

To the man who waited on me
At the Starbucks down on Main
I hope you understand
When I put on that t-shirt
The only thing I meant to say
Is I’m a Skynyrd fan

The red flag on my chest is somehow like the elephant
In the corner of the South
And I just walked him right in the room

Just a proud rebel son
With an old can of worms
Looking like I’ve got a lot to learn
But from my point of view

I’m just a white man
Coming to you from the Southland
Trying to understand what it’s like not to be
I’m proud of where I’m from
But not everything we’ve done
And it ain’t like you and me to rewrite history
Our generation didn’t start this nation
We’re still picking up the pieces
Walking over eggshells
Fighting over yesterday
And caught between southern pride
And southern blame

They called it Reconstruction
Fixed the buildings, dried some tears
We’re still sifting’ through the rubble
After 150 years
I’ll try to put myself in your shoes
And that’s a good place to begin
It ain’t like I can walk a mile
In someone else’s skin

‘Cause I’m just a white man
Living in the Southland
Just like you, I’m more than what you see
I’m proud of where I’m from
And not everything we’ve done
And it ain’t like you and me to rewrite history
Our generation didn’t start this nation
And we’re still paying for the mistakes
Than a bunch of folks made
Long before we came
Caught somewhere between southern pride
And southern blame

[LL Cool J]
Dear Mr. White Man, I wish you understood
What the world is really like when you’re living in the hood
Just because my pants are saggin’ doesn’t mean I’m up to no good
You should try to get to know me, I really wish you would
Now my chains are gold, but I’m still misunderstood
I wasn’t there when Sherman’s March turned the south into firewood
I want you to get paid, but be a slave I never could
Feel like a new-fangled Django dogging invisible white hoods
So when I see that white cowboy hat, I’m thinking it’s not all good
I guess we’re both guilty of judging the cover, not the book
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

I’m just a white man
(If you don’t judge my do-rag)
Coming to you from the southland
(I won’t judge your red flag)
Trying to understand what it’s like not to be
I’m proud of where I’m from
(If you forget my gold chains)
But not everything we’ve done
(I’ll forget the iron chains)
It ain’t like you and me can rewrite history
(Can’t rewrite history, baby)
Oh, Dixieland
(The relationship between the Mason-Dixon needs some fixing’)
I hope you understand what this is all about
(Quite frankly, I’m a black Yankee, but I’ve been thinking about this lately)
I’m a son of the New South
(The past is the past, you feel me)
And I just want to make things right
(Let bygones be bygones)
Where all that’s left is southern pride
(RIP Robert E. Lee, but I’ve gotta thank Abraham Lincoln for freeing me, know what I mean)

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