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.