Dear Brad Paisley

Dear Brad,

I may be a self-proclaimed feminist progressive, but I still listen to country now and then. There are some songs in the genre that make me cringe, but that’s true of almost any musical genre. When I was pregnant, country music was my JAM – largely because there was a plethora of sappy music about children available, and I was a hormonal masochist. I had also been living in Kentucky for four years at the time, so I suppose some affinity for country crooning was inevitable. But that’s really neither here nor there. Today, I want us to chat about a song on your new album – Accidental Racist. 

I hadn’t heard the song or read the lyrics before the controversy started to blow up. Having now read said lyrics, I have no desire to hear the song. What’s more, I have no desire to support you and your music anymore. I know this sentiment – being expressed  by many more than me – may confuse and even anger you. You have explained in subsequent interviews that you intended no harm, and simply wanted to open up dialogue about race relations. I can appreciate that. I can also buy into the bad pun being circulated that your song was accidentally racist in and of itself. The reason I won’t support you any longer is that, despite the numerous explanations out there for why your lyrical stance is offensive, you stand by your words and claim you wouldn’t change a thing.

I doubt you will ever read this letter, but I’m still going to attempt to explain for myself why your song isn’t just accidentally awful, but reflective of very real cultural discrimination embedded in that “good ole southern boy” trope to which you try to appeal.

To the man that 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 somehow is like the elephant in the corner of the south
And I just walked him right in the room

That’s fine if you like Skynyrd’s music. That’s your call. But wearing a Confederate flag as a fashion or cultural statement? I don’t care what it means to you; to most of us, it stands for a very bloody, ugly period in our history as a nation. It represents a palpable and inherently evil set of archaic laws that allowed for the subjugation of a people based on skin pigment. It’s not fashionable and it’s not a point of “Southern Pride.”

I’ve heard the arguments for why it’s a point of reclamation – a means of rising above the sins of our fathers and moving towards a better tomorrow. They’re largely bullshit. There is nothing positive to “reclaim” in the Confederate flag. I’m usually pretty hesitant to draw parallels between Nazi Germany and, well, anything, but wearing the Confederate flag and expecting people not to get upset about it because slavery isn’t around anymore is like wearing a swastika and feeling like it shouldn’t be a big deal anymore because we won World War II.

If you want to encourage Southern pride and combat negative stereotypes, start with bringing your school curriculum into this century, addressing the massive issues with poverty in your states, and standing against hate laced rhetoric and policy towards women and the LGBT community. That’ll get you a lot further than sporting a shirt emblazoned with the symbol of everything you’re trying to claim isn’t representative of the South any longer.

I’ve heard the arguments for how it’s ok because people don’t “mean” it that way anymore. I have no idea what not “meaning” it even means in this context. So you’re wearing a Confederate flag that brings up all kinds of angst because… why the hell not? That makes ALL the sense in the world.

Just a proud rebel son with an ‘ol can of worms
Lookin’ like I got a lot to learn but from my point of view

I’m just a white man comin’ to you from the southland
Tryin’ 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 can re-write history

So you want to show your Southern pride  by wearing the symbol of all the things you’re not proud of? I’m genuinely confused by your logic. It’s hard to give much appreciation to your “point of view” when it’s so poorly reasoned, but I’ll give it a shot.

You say you’re a white man trying to understand what it’s like to not be, all while coming from a position of privilege (this might be giving you a little more credit than you deserve, but so be it). That’s admirable, I suppose. Critical self-reflection is a good thing. The problem is that you walk into a store that has been largely marketed to and bought into by individuals of privilege, and are making a stand about your right to assert that privilege through the broadcasting of an image that is intangibly connected to racial privilege. You’ll have to forgive me if I don’t think that’s the greatest starting place for deconstructing privilege.

Your case isn’t helped when the lyrics directly following your purported desire for understanding once again directs sympathy back to you; you can’t be expected to be held accountable for what people did all those years ago, right? The thing is, being uncomfortable with your brazen show of “Southern Pride” from an era of oppression and violence is not holding you accountable for the sins of your father; it’s holding you accountable for your complete lack of sensitivity and tact. It’s holding you accountable for your unwillingness to listen and be part of a dialogue, instead jumping to the defensive.

Speaking of defensive…

Our generation didn’t start this nation
We’re still pickin’ up the pieces, walkin’ on eggshells, fightin’ over yesterday
And caught between southern pride and southern blame

They called it Reconstruction, fixed the buildings, dried some tears
We’re still siftin’ through the rubble after a hundred-fifty years
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

No. No, no, no no no. You are not “caught” between Southern Pride and Southern Blame. You are creating some kind of artificial dichotomy that serves the purpose of justifying your insensitive decisions. No one is trying to “blame” the South when we bristle at your Confederate fashion statements. The blame is directed at individuals who think that the amount of time elapsed suddenly renders prior symbols of discrimination no longer meaningful enough to give pause.

I’m glad you’re willing to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. The problem is that you only seem interested in tying up the laces and kicking back in a self-congratulatory pose. I’m trying to imagine a world where you actually tried to imagine being on the other side of this equation and still thought wearing a Confederate flag was somehow appropriate. I’m glad LL Cool J somehow thinks it’s ok, but his lyrics are problematic in their own right. I’m going to leave that dissection for cooler minds with better perspective (my general reaction was WTF), but let’s talk about your little mashup with him at the end.

Paisley and Cool J (Cool J in parentheses):

I’m just a white man
(If you don’t judge my do-rag)
Comin’ to you from the southland
(I won’t judge your red flag)
Tryin’ to understand what it’s like not to be
I’m proud of where I’m from
(If you don’t judge my gold chains)
But not everything we’ve done
(I’ll forget the iron chains)
It ain’t like you and me can re-write history
(Can’t re-write history baby)

Did you seriously just equate a do-rag with a Confederate flag? A cultural symbol that is not tied explicitly to violence or oppression and is also entirely functional to something that is nothing more than a symbol of the oppression of the culture in question? Are you kidding? I hope you’re kidding. It’s not funny, but at least then it would be a botched attempt at humor and not out-and-out lunacy. How is the choice to wear gold chains somehow on par with the shackles of slavery, again? HOW DOES ANYTHING IN THIS PART OF THE SONG MAKE ANY SENSE?!

Oh, Dixieland
(The relationship between the Mason-Dixon needs some fixin’)
I hope you understand what this is all about
(Quite frankly I’m a black Yankee but I’ve been thinkin’ 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)
It’s real, it’s real
It’s truth

NOPE. You don’t get to revere Robert E. Lee in the same sentence as praising Lincoln for freeing the slaves. Not only is this disgustingly simplified historical drivel representative of what history lessons too frequently look like South of that problematic Mason-Dixon line (it was not the $#@%ing “War of Northern Aggression,” you revisionist jackasses), it’s on par with saying, “RIP Grand Dragon Calvin Fred Craig, but I’ve gotta thank MLK for doing right by us.”

No. No to the false apologies and the weak rationalizations and the callous attempt at bridging a divide you still know very little about, apparently. But no, most importantly, because of the fact that you don’t see a damn thing wrong with your words.

It’s not that there’s a problem with you attempting to engage the subject. The problem is in your defensive listening. This is not an attempt at dialogue. It’s an attempt to make yourself, and others like you, feel better about wearing Confederate relics as fashion accessories. You claim it’s impossible to walk a mile in someone else’s skin, which is only true because you’re so busy listening to the sound of your own voice that you never had a shot at hearing what anyone else was saying.

It’s worth noting that I’m writing this to you as a white woman from Chicago. I’m well aware that I’m coming at this from a position of privilege. I have friends of color who are offended by the Confederate flag wearing good ole boys, and others who are not. I won’t speak for them. I’ll speak for myself in saying that, as an American, it is downright embarrassing to see fellow citizens celebrating a chapter of our history born of hatred, bigotry and violence. I’ll speak for myself in saying that, as a human, I think nostalgia for the days where a man was worth less because of his skin color is reprehensible, even if you aren’t throwing around racial slurs in the process anymore. I’ll speak for myself in saying that, as a country fan, this is exemplary of  why I feel a twinge of shame whenever I express any affinity for the genre.

It doesn’t matter how much you tipped the man who waited on you at Starbucks, Brad. It doesn’t make your song any better. Until you issue a formal apology, I’m done. You may not have been consciously attempting to be racist in your song, but the decision to not apologize for its offensive content? There’s nothing accidental about that.

Peace,

Lauren

(Hat tip to The Wrap for the lyrics)

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14 comments

  1. I get where they were trying to go with this collaboration, but what they ended up with was essentially another example of what they were trying to avoid.

    It’s a lyrical and logical disaster that just wasn’t well thought through. Their hearts were in the right place I think. But they had a severe case of cranial-rectal inversion in execution.

  2. I think we probably need to get a guide out there for this sort of thing. Looking to defend your position on a particular topic? Fine, bring up a rational argument… finding a member of the group most impacted by your position to say it doesn’t bother them doesn’t cut it. I can find any number of women who don’t feel bothered by sexism, gay people who don’t mind being denied marriage equality, and humans who don’t get upset by conservative social policies.
    I wonder if there’s a name for that particular fallacy? Argumentum ad fine by meum?

    1. “and humans who don’t get upset by conservative social policies.”
      By which I mean humans in general, not making distinctions between particular subgroups…. not meaning to imply that women and gay people aren’t humans.

      Note to self: read through before posting…

  3. Reblogged this on Big Blue Dot Y'all and commented:
    Thanks for this rant. It mirrors my own feelings exactly. I grew up seeing the Confederate flag everywhere…in Oconee County, SC where I am from, will see many still hanging. There are many things to love and hold onto from Southern culture…that flag is not one of them.

  4. Opinions or whatever, I’m glad there are people critically thinking about this song. Living in the south, it’s hard not to hear country. I like some of it, I just don’t listen to it all the time.

    As a person who’s spent a chunk of her time studying history, particularly U.S., I see a LOT of stereotyping in the lyrics. Broad generalizations that our society as a whole has accepted as truth. Like all southern men wear or support the wearing of the Confederate Flag or all black men wear do-rags. Utterly ridiculous. It’s like thinking all southerners at the time of the Civil War supported slavery or all German supported Hitler.

    Should music try to address racial stereotyping? Absolutely, I think that’s a wonderful idea. We could use more thoughtfulness in music on our societal behaviors, instead of praising the “Budonkadonk (sp?)”. But that’s just me.

  5. Paisley’s argument is RIDICULOUS and is the logical equivalent of the White Pride/Hate distinction made by the current iteration of the KKK.

    I do think there is something interesting to explore in his sentiment. Namely: is it possible to evoke cultural pride without tacitly endorsing what that culture represents for bodies reduced to bare life?

    Is Guantanamo Bay much different than American slavery? Does brandishing the Confederate Flag truly represent something different than the American Flag?

    Obviously Paisley and Mr. Cool don’t deal with these issues, but lets not rush to create too much distance between the Confederate apologists and mainstream American culture.

    1. I was actually just having this conversation earlier today. I want to be clear that there’s a lot to be proud about in Southern Culture. I’m just not sure that a symbol that is largely associated with such a negative period of history (fairly or no) is the best way to demonstrate that pride, particularly in the way that Paisley defends it.

      Is the Confederate flag much different than the American flag, given the sordid human rights history of our nation? Between Guantanamo, Japanese Internment, the Trail of Tears and the tacit acceptance of slavery by the North and South alike prior to the Civil War, I understand the parallels drawn there. I think the problem is that the Confederate flag became analogous with slavery following the Emancipation Proclamation (even if the moral arguments against slavery were not front and center in the conflict), largely, in many ways, because of its invocation by White Supremacists in the decades that followed the conflict. It did not HAVE to be that symbol, but it was rendered as such by history, both through its role in the Civil War (and the simplified political stories we tell about it), and through its cultural application since. So while I can appreciate the context, I don’t think, culturally, the symbols have the same impact, even if their historical connotations have similarities at points.

      That’s where the problem comes into play. By all means, I think people should express pride in Southern Culture. However, opting to do so by embracing an emblem with so many negative associations doesn’t help. Then again, if the conversation had been started in a different medium with more options for articulating complex ideas, would the conversation have played out the same way? I don’t know. Perhaps Messers Paisley and Cool would have articulated nuanced perspectives that would have added productively to discourse on the subject. However, given Paisley’s defense of his words in the wake of the scandal, I’m not all that optimistic.

      THESE kinds of conversations are important. The kind of defensive rhetoric being used by Paisley? I feel like it’s just counterproductive.

      1. Paisley’s lyrics are reductive of Southern culture, framing it as solely that culture which is represented by the Confederate flag and those who would sport it. In other words, equating “Southern culture” with “white Southern culture.” As if the cultural contributions of black Southerners who would revile the Confederate flag do not constitute Southern heritage. As if there aren’t other aspect of Southern heritage/culture that don’t glorify the institution of slavery, for example, the Southern gothic literature of William Faulkner.

  6. I agree with nearly everything you say Lauren. I do however think that the impact of the American flag might not be an innocuous as you assume. Consider how often the American Flag was used as a symbol of American exceptionalism following 9/11. It even has it’s own violent country song just like the Confederate Flag (Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue by Toby Keith).

    Paisley/LL Cool are thoughtless and crass in their execution of cultural analysis, however, their silliness has in a very indirect way caused me to consider how really proud of my country I can be.

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