Several years ago when I was pregnant with the now seven year old, I was in a deep funk as I was still reeling from the recent death of my mother and desperate to start making connections here in Maine. So I joined a local mothering group in an attempt to make those connections and to be honest, those efforts at connections were damn messy. I was the only woman of color and all too often, my Blackness seemed to serve as a block for meaningful connection with the vast majority of women. Oh they were nice enough but our conversations never went beyond the surface and all too often it was clear that we were all mildly uncomfortable.
Yet there was one mama in the group, who went out of her way to connect in a meaningful way with me, but as she told me on more than one occasion, I was one of the few Black people she knew. Let me just say, no one wants to be “the Black friend.” In the early days of our friendship, I would come home emotionally depleted and wonder…why the hell was I attempting to be friends with this woman?
Despite the stops and starts, a real friendship developed but not without some messiness. Over the years, we have had conversations about how our upbringings and positions on the class ladder sometimes do color the way we communicate. I am a middle class striver, a child of the working class whose only entry higher up on the class ladder is via education. I fully own the fact that in many ways I am still working class and at times rough around the edges. I clean up just well enough to do my job and charm others when needed. My friend is a self-professed elite liberal, a child of the upper middle class who until recently never left her class station and as a result, we sometimes speak vastly different languages. Even now after seven years, we still have moments when our communication is a miss; thankfully, we have enough history with each other that we can bridge those gaps. It would have been very easy for me to dismiss my friend as a clueless white woman and end the relationship but even in the moments when I was left scratching my head, I always knew that her intentions were never to do harm. So I gave her the benefit of the doubt.
I share this story because when the hubbub broke about country western singer Brad Paisley and rapper LL Cool J’s latest song, I immediately thought of my friend and I. Paisley and Cool J’s new song is called ‘Accidental Racist’ and let me just say…damn, it’s a hot mess. With lyrics such as
I’m just a white man comin’ to you from the south land tryin’ to understand what it’s like not to be.
I’m proud of where I’m from but not everything we’ve done. It ain’t like you and me can rewrite history.
Our generation didn’t start this nation. We’re still pickin’ up the pieces, walkin’ on eggshells, fightin’ over yesterday.
Caught between southern pride and southern blame.
I think it’s safe to say that this song was begging to piss someone off and, well, we the people are happy to deliver. Dude, what the hell were you thinking? Never mind the fact that you have the audacity to try to convince us, the listeners that wearing a t-shirt with a Confederate flag is just showing your pride. Look, I don’t know too many Black Americans that will ever see an image of a Confederate flag and not mentally see our ancestors hanging from a tree. I hear you on the fact that you want to be prideful man but the approach was just all wrong. Never mind that LL of ‘Mama Said Knock You Out’ fame clearly must have gotten knocked on his head considering his lines:
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
You can safely say that I think this song is shit, but this is where I am about to go off the script of righteous indignation.
I did a little peeking around into Paisley’s background (sorry to say that I am not a fan of Country music aside from a little Johnny Cash) and what I found from my perspective is a fellow Gen-X’er who seems like he wants to make a change. It sounds like Paisley has dipped his toe into going outside the country box in the past. Not that he gets any brownie points but the reality is we are a divided nation. Many of us on the liberal coasts and the few liberal pockets of flyover nation in the US pretty much do look upon the south as a bastion of backwoods bigotry. The south in many ways begs our derision but is it fair? Is it just? More importantly how can we move on?
In many ways it’s easier to get pissed off about this song and write these two off as too incredibly insensitive men, one unwilling to examine his own white privilege and the other unwilling to well…I don’t know, just not be stuck on stupid. But I think as clueless and offensive as this song is, it is actually a starting point to a dialogue that is long overdue. We can’t erase the history. It is what it is. But what can we do to move towards becoming a more cohesive nation, one that does not need to cling to misplaced notions of Southern Pride and instead works towards being a nation.
Anytime issues of race and difference are brought up, you have entered the danger zone but how do we move beyond that? How do we move beyond knee jerk defensiveness and clinging to our deeply held beliefs and create real change rather than sticking to anger and judgment that never changes anything?
None of us know Brad Paisley personally and while he makes for a convenient target and symbol of utter cluelessness, I can’t help but wondering if he is a bit like my friend…well-meaning, clumsy in his efforts but maybe it’s worth trying to find out what his intentions are and seeing if we can move beyond the initial outrage and seeing if his actions can launch a true dialogue.