A Few Quick Thoughts on “Accidentally Racist”

I just want to briefly weigh in on the “Accidentally Racist” discussion. For those who don’t already know, this is a song by Brad Paisely featuring LL Cool J.

The gyst of the song is that Paisely’s white narrator is conflicted about his white identity: “I’m proud of where I’m from but not everything we’ve done.” You can listen here, and read the lyrics here.

In brief, there are three main problems with the song’s premise:

1. It treats racism as accidental to, not inherent in, whiteness and white culture.

2. It frames  racisim as something “done,” something of the past, of “history
,” not a phenomenon that continues in the present.

3. By focusing on white people’s guilt and confusion, it suggests that racism is a problem because it harms white people…And though white supremacy certainly harms white people, it disproportionately and overwhelmingly harms non-white people. Racism is a problem because it oppresses and kills non-whites.

In a white supremacist society or regime of power, whiteness is inherently racist. In such a context, you can’t celebrate white identity or white culture
without being racist.

The song pulls back the curtain on white privilege itself: white people have the privilege of self-deception, that is, the privilege of not having to think about or being upset by the fact that white supremacy exists, and that white supremacy uses them as means and medium for its functioning. It is a privilege to think (well, fantasize, really) that we whites can and/or ought to be able to “celebrate” our heritage in ways uncomplicated, single-faceted ways that don’t also include some serious confrontation of our own ongoing complicity in white supremacy, and thus also make us feel really awful and uncomfortable. If there is to be any pleasure in or celebration of white culture or identity, it has to be, as I have argued elsewhere, very, very complicated, contorted, and, indeed disorienting. And this disorientation is about the de-centering of whiteness, not the use of white guilt to re-center conversations about racism back on white people.

Just think about the uncomplicated we-are-the-world feel-good vibe or affect of this song, and contrast it to the uncomfortable, contorted affect of something like James Chance’s songs about whiteness and race relations. I’ve written about that here and here. So the song’s affective dimension is one strong indication that this piece isn’t really complicating whiteness and white supremacy so much as reaffirming and re-centering it.