Choosing LL, he said, is like “assuming that Paisley must know something about barbecue because he’s Southern.”
Being Southern comes with its own set of assumptions and stereotypes, some of them negative ones created by the low points of the region’s history. Southern pride is largely a defensive reaction to such stigmas, said Eric Weisbard, a music critic and American Studies professor at the University of Mississippi.
So while some might see Accidental Racist as a ham-handed attempt to start a dialogue, it’s part of a long tradition in which Southern musicians “try to talk about who they are in answer to what others dismissively assume they are,” Weisbard wrote on NPR.org.
Much of the friction around the song comes from people who don’t understand this history, Weisbard said in an interview: “We’re as segregated culturally as we often are socially.”
Many people are proud of being from the “heartland,” New York City or other American places, Weisbard said. But “the South has been branded a problem for the country as a whole at least since the Civil War.”
“In every generation, there’s a new way in which white Southerners have marginalized themselves,” he said, “and the rest of America has to think about what that means.”
Paisley gave America something to think about with the chorus of the song: “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.”
At the end of the chorus he sings, “Caught between Southern pride and Southern blame.”
That’s a gray area for Chris Newman, 25, a white West Virginia University graduate student who grew up in Lexington, Ky. He says Southern pride often is “flirting a fine line between being offensive and supporting historical heritage.”
Hospitality, driving your truck through the mud, floating down a river or drinking bourbon in Kentucky are great ways to embrace Southern culture, he says. “But I don’t run around wearing Confederate T-shirts. I have Lynyrd Skynyrd T-shirts, but they don’t have stars and bars on them.”
That’s a deliberate choice: “If I respect somebody, I’m going to make sure I don’t offend them,” Newman said.
Newman doesn’t believe “accidental racism” exists. But Luke Laird, a Nashville songwriter who has penned many chart-topping hits, has “absolutely” seen it while growing up in a small, mostly white town in western Pennsylvania.
“There were people who said things (that) I know if they actually knew what it meant, they would be horrified,” said Laird, who is white.
Back in high school, Laird saw a Hank Williams Jr. shirt with a Confederate flag on it and thought, “that looks cool.”
“To be completely honest, and it’s probably just ignorance, but growing up I never really thought a lot about that flag and what it meant,” Laird said.
“We all want to treat everyone equally, but the reality is we don’t always do that,” Laird said. “The reality is, it takes more of a conscious effort to try and see where the other people are coming from.”