Do you think racists are all the same? You are wrong. Country star Brad Paisley announced to the world on Monday that he is an "Accidental Racist" in a song that has earned lots of criticism. Before we unpack how one can be accidental about their racism (and why that doesn't exucse the racism), perhaps, in a way, he's onto something. While racism is pretty much just racism there are so many different species of racists.
Accidental Racist. This is what Paisley claims to be. As the word accidental suggests, being a racist just sort of happened to him. The Accidental Racist is someone who doesn't think they're racist, understands why others might call them racist, but resents being called racists. That's what happened to Paisley, according to his song, when a Starbucks employee took his Confederate flag T-shirt as a sign of support for white supremacy. Paisley thinks this is unfair because he doesn't think the flag, which once was the banner of a generation who rebelled against the abolition of slavery and then for another generation who rebelled against civil rights for black people (Georgia, for example, put the Confederate flag on its state flag in 1956), symbolizes racism. Through his protestations at the injustice of being labeled a racist, the Accidental Racist acknowledges that racism exists (or at least existed) and that it is (or was) a bad thing, but by claiming to be the victim, he also suggests that the real problem is all the people (black people, especially) who won't just let it go. (Also, Paisley can't really claim "I'm just a white man comin' to you from the Southland," as he says in the song, because he's from West Virginia, which is not the South.) There's also something vaguely deceptive about the Accidental Racist. There is no way Paisley was actually unaware that wearing the Confederate flag is a symbol of racism. He just does not believe it should be. A real accidental racist might be the Nathan Zuckerman character in Philip Roth's The Human Stain, in which the professor asks whether one of his students who's never attended his class is a "spook," not knowing the student is black.
Casual Racist. What makes this kind of racist unique is that he or she doesn't do a nervous head turn to make sure no minorities are around before saying a racist thing. The Casual Racist thinks his or her racist comment is just a statement of practical fact. The tone of condescension — this form of racist is most associated with the caricatures of rich people — usually indicates that being racist is a good idea to protect oneself. A stand-out specimen is Arrested Development's Lucille Bluth, who in one episode says to a Spanish-speaking mover, "And that goes into storage right? Not into your apartment." Or like when then-Vice President George H.W. Bush referred to his Mexican-American grandchildren was "the little brown ones."
Hipster Racist. Like the Accidental Racist, the Hipster Racist knows racism is wrong, but thinks that if it's wrapped up in enough layers of irony it can be turned into a cool inside joke. Last year, for example, when people noticed Girls had no real characters who weren't white, Girls writer Lesley Arfin tweeted about the well-received Gabourey Sidibe movie, "What really bothered me most about Precious was that there was no representation of ME." Excavations of her writings showed other racist jokes, like an article section about defecating that began with, "That Which Shall Not Be Named: You know, 'dropping off the kids' or 'taking Obama to the White House.'" At Vice, Benjamin Leo defended Arfin, saying, "It’s 2012 and Obama’s in the White House: the McCarthyism 2.0 witch-hunting mob has been disarmed!" He was right that the country has changed, he was wrong that there's enough irony in the world to make racist jokes OK.
Unreconstructed Racist. This may be the nearest relation to the Hipster Racist in that these people choose to be racist, are aware that other people find that racism unacceptable, but, and here is the main identifying characteristic, still believes in some of the oldest forms of racism, usually as hallowed traditions. As the name suggests, the Unreconstructed Racist is someone who has not changed with the times -- think Archie Bunker, Ellen Barkin's character in The New Normal, some older relatives in white families. Last year, in a sign of belated but admirable progress, graduates of the St. Martinville, La., Senior High School Class of 1973 decided that for the first time in 40 years, they would not hold a segregated class reunion. Unfortunately, some thought that was too much change and a "white graduates only" get together was held after the high school's Homecoming Game.
Unfortunate Racist. Like the Accidental Racist, these racists did not set out to be racist, and are pretty sure they are not truly racist, but somehow found themselves being racist anyway. The most typical example of this species are politicians who say something racist and then find it unfortunate when they realize it could kill their careers. Unfortunate Racists include former Virginia Sen. George Allen, who called an Indian-American "Macaca" in 2006. Allen responded to the resulting criticism by saying, "I do apologize if he's offended by that." There's also Alaska Rep. Don Young, who last month said his dad hired "50 or 60 wetbacks" to pick tomatoes in the olden days. Young apologized, saying, "I know that this term is not used in the same way nowadays, and I meant no disrespect... There was no malice in my heart or intent to offend; it was a poor choice of words." There's Hawaii state Rep. Faye Hanohano, who in February protested a lack of funding for Native Hawaiian artists by saying she didn't want art made by "Haoles, Japs, or Pakes." That means Caucasians, Japanese, or Chinese. She apologized, saying, "I'd like to express my sincere apology to any individuals or groups who may have been offended by my comments." While the Unfortunate Racist's apology may be motivated by self-preservation, unlike the Accidental, Unreconstructed, and Hipster Racists, he or she takes no pride in racism.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.