Accidental Racist

This week you have likely heard at least one opinion of Brad Paisley’s new song “Accidental Racist,” featuring LL Cool J. If this is news to you or sounds like it’s straight from The Onion, here are articles from The Atlantic and NPR’s All Things Considered to bring you up to speed.

I find the questions I’ve been asked due to the song’s  hype rather amusing. Evidently some think I speak for all Southerners and all interracial marriages, which if true, would be a rather daunting reality. Someone asked, “Do you believe racial tensions even still exist in the South?” Another inquired, “Don’t you think it’s accurate and must be okay since a black man and a white man contributed to it?” My favorite, “Are you offended by the song since you’re in an interracial marriage?” (Again, not from The Onion.)

I have white skin and grew up in the Carolinas. My husband has black skin and grew up in Alabama. Do I speak for all Southern white females? No. Do I speak for all white people in interracial marriages? No. I speak to my experiences, which are certainly shaped and influenced by all of these factors.

Back to the questions. Do I think racial tensions still exist in the South? You betcha. Do I think racial tensions only exist in the South? No ma’am. I’ve had white Southerners ask if my parents knew if my husband-boyfriend at the time-is black. At that time they had known him for years, so yes, they knew. When I responded to those questions by asking why it mattered, I was informed that interracial dating was “a sin,” “not a good idea,” or “not worth the fight.” I’ve had black women in Chicago ask why I “took a good one,” or what I’m “trying to prove by marrying him.” A white Southerner asked where my husband was in the visitation line at my Mom’s funeral, because he did not think the black man standing near me could be my husband. And, I’ve had a white Chicagoan say, “Oh, I thought you were married to the pastor of First Presbyterian, but you’re white, so I must have you confused with someone else.” Now, am I calling those Southerners and Chicagoans racists? Absolutely not. Am I calling out their assumptions due to racial tensions in which we are all participants? Absolutely.

I spoke to a multicultural group of adults about racism and prejudices, and used the photo below to begin our conversation. I was a guest speaker, so they obviously recognized me in the photo, but did not have any other knowledge of me or my family. I asked them to match the following identifiers to each person in the photo: 

1. Holds a master’s degree and works in a hospital

2. Holds a doctorate degree

3. Did not complete college due to family and financial issues

4. Owns a landscaping company

5. Holds master’s degree and teaches Special Education

6. Holds a master’s degree and is the pastor of a First Presbyterian Church

In that group of adults, none of them matched all 6 identifiers and people correctly. And, in our conversation of why they matched certain identifiers to certain people, we were able to name that our worldviews are deeply rooted in assumptions. We acknowledged that assumptions make discussions of race even more complicated. We admitted that each of us has judged someone based on our own assumptions for aesthetic reasons: accessories, skin tone, clothing, tattoos, weight, hair,  etc. We were reminded that each assumption may be inaccurate and unintentionally hurtful.

Instead of focusing on the energy around the criticism and defense of “Accidental Racist,” I challenge us to continue to take a critical look at ourselves and how we view and treat others-not just in the Southern States and not just between whites and blacks. Accidents can be prevented and assumptions can be changed. And labels are meant for clothing, file folders, and toddler sippy cups at daycare. Labels are not meant for people. I’d like to see more naming of assumptions and prejudices during respectful dialogue than name calling or avoiding conversations altogether.

For those of you still trying to match the identifiers and people, the correct answers, from left to right: 2, 3, 1, 6, 5, 4.

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4 comments

  1. I haven’t heard that song (can’t quite imagine which station to turn to…) but thankful it prompted you to write this. Miss your face.

  2. Lisa Diedrick · · Reply

    Always love a good look at life through the eyes of AAM!

  3. I always read your posts with your voice in my head. It makes them even better!

  4. Proud Canadian · · Reply

    I think that people erroneously used the words “racist” and “bigot” interchangeably. I reject the notion that someone can accidentally be a racist. Racism involves purposely advancing a race of people or oppressing a race of people based on skin colour; either through the enactment of discriminatory laws or economic disparities. Bigotry and ignorance is completely different and can, be “accidental” for want of a better word. Until the distinction is made and accepted, America will continue to struggle with overcoming its legacy of racism and the effects that prevail even today.

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