Wednesday, April 10, 2013

May the "Accidental Racist" be an accidental tipping point [We've got to go somewhere from here]

[cross posted on St. Louis Beacon]

Brad Paisley released a song featuring LL Cool J.

The song is called "Accidental Racist" (off of Paisley's new album, Wheelhouse).

The internet has exploded.

This USA Today article sums up the breadth of reactions: The blogosphere has declared the Brad Paisley/LL Cool J song a major misstep. But is it really? (summation: "worst song ever" to "people feel it's a really good song")

You can probably continue reading and get some of what I'm about to say without doing so, but if you plan to really absorb, do these things first:
  1. Listen to the song here
  2. Read this critique of it here.
  3. For extra and seemingly but not at all unrelated credit, check out this.
For the past month I've been thinking a good deal about how much horrible we have heaped on each other as humans. It all came to a head for me because I wanted take-off and landing reading for a trip and I grabbed the copy of Haunted Alton that had been collecting dust on my bedside table since I bought it on a whim out of the dollar bin when the Borders in Edwardsville went out of business what - 2 years ago? The book starts out with a history of the Riverbend region. A history of massacres and mob violence and indifference and compromise and physical hatred and the Underground Railroad and the birth of the industrial railroad and sunken printing presses and imprisoned soldiers and on and on all on the same soil. Eye to eye and hand to hand. And I thought to myself, "how could we possibly ever expect to heal from that? Ever? No wonder we all harbor so much 'ugh' toward so many others. That is too much. It is just too much."

At 30,000 feet (amazing how radical your thoughts can get so separate from the earth - does this happen to anyone else?) I started to think about a Reset Button. What if we could hit Reset and stop carrying the pain and the guilt of all of the blood that came before us? If it's healing that must come before truly moving forward and the healing is insurmountable this many generations later, can we toss a "get out of jail free" card in the name of an opportunity at shared progress? How differently would we approach problem solving? Would we prioritize different aspects of conflict? Would we see potential solutions that were previously clouded with "ugh?"

After this flash of insanity/brilliance, the immediate thought was how my sister was going to kill me. My sister studies, teaches and does this work actively in literal and figurative communities for a living. And she is ridiculously good at it (her and her). For, oh, the past 10 years, she and I have had an ongoing debate about institution versus individual. Which we've actually graduated to be about a discussion of "both and" as opposed to "either or." But it's still a debate. And I knew, to her, this thought strand would seem a cop out. Being a-historical. Letting everyone off the hook.

But today, hearing the "Accidental Racist" song and reading as many reactions as I had time to absorb, I was back to this idea of a Reset. Because, really, here's the thing:
  1. I agree with everything that Lesley Kinzel lays out in her piece. Which is awesome and very smartly put together and also hilarious(ly sad and depressing). 
  2. At the same time, I know that there are people with whom this song truly resonates and opens a door.
  3. In order to truly make any headway, we have to get as many people as possible into the conversation.
Simultaneous truths. Both and.

But the critiques and the reactions to the song do not leave room at the table for both and.

Lesley Kinzel says (emphasis mine):
"But it’s not just a dumb song. The fact that this can be recorded and put out there in 2013 speaks volumes about how far we have to go. On the upside, the disgust and indignation with which it has been met also says something about how far we’ve come. Nevertheless, a lot of road still stretches out before us. This is not helping. Yes, we need to have better conversations. But the first step in those conversations is listening to the voices that are least heard. This isn't you, Accidental Racist."
The fact that this can be recorded and put out there in 2013 speaks volumes about where we really are in 2013. The fact that this song can be decided upon by two major celebrities from two very different sections of the celebrity sphere, make it to the recording studio, then all the hands who touch a song from inception to pressing hear it, and then it actually goes out into the public - this, to me? Says the reality we are actually living and breathing in is very different from the one we think we are having any sort of impact on with our "discussions." And by "we" I mean activists, progressives, conversationalists with our panels and our roundtables and our session and our blogs and our marches and our workshops.

People are in a really different place than "we" are. Most people. So many that on day 2, "Accidental Racist" is the 22nd most downloaded country song (60 overall) on iTunes (at $1.29 a pop) and Wheelhouse is the 4th (and the Deluxe version is 6th - so really probably #1) most downloaded album. This is the world we live in. A world where this song is progress. Let that sink in. Strip away all of your opinions and learning and conversation skills and truths and let. that. sink. in. There are people who would articulate a goal of healing and diversity and "no hate" that would call this song progress. Do not deny them their reality, their opinion in the same way you would press upon them yours. Let that idea sink in. Is "our" definition of progress and healing and "no hate" so different that we are willing to kick all of those people to the curb? Not even invite them in for an iced latte and an opportunity for one of our highly reasoned conversations?

Dear people having The Conversation: perhaps we are talking to ourselves. There are a ton of people who have no idea what we are saying (think Charlie Brown's teacher). How else does "Accidental Racist" make it to release? It's the wake up call of "if, then" statements. How can a conversation about inclusion discount this many people? At some point, don't we have to meet them where they are?

And who are "we" to strip away the truth that Brad and LL laid down on their track? That is their truth. It's where they are. Giving them a bunch of academia and history and reasoning doesn't change where they, the people, are coming from. Both and.

When I talk about the Reset Button I am not being ignorant, wishing anyone to get off being ignorant or promoting feigned ignorance as a tool. I'm talking about it as an exercise. A framework. This is heavy stuff. It is layered. It is charged. It is polarizing even in its attempts to do the opposite. This is a culture of avoidance. Of dependency, obesity, overindulgence, denial, coping mechanisms. We don't, as a collective group, face reality, facts or hard truths. So on this issue, one we all agree is so broken and so core, why do we demand what we find unattainable in every other arena? And demand it to even start a conversation?

This conversation - the conversation about race, inclusion, our collective history - is broken. And if we can't see that in all the pieces that make up "Accidental Racist," if we haven't seen it in any of the many public disconnects we've had just in 2013, then I'm not sure where to start. Or I'm sure we need a new start. Because, really, we've got to go somewhere from here.

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