LEONARD PITTS JR.

Empathizing is not that hard

Updated: 2013-04-17T00:16:38Z

By LEONARD PITTS JR.

The Miami Herald

There are many things to say about Brad Paisley's new song.

The country music giant is under fire for “Accidental Racist,” about a Starbucks employee who objects to Paisley's Confederate battle flag shirt. The song is Paisley's attempt to metabolize his conflicted feelings as “a white man comin' to you from the southland,” trying to pick his way through the minefield of race.

Rolling Stone dubbed it “questionable.” Gawker called it “horrible.” CMT News said it was “clumsily written” and singled out guest performer LL Cool J for an “inept” rap.

They are being kind.

But the song also fails in a more subtle, yet substantive way. Twice, Paisley speaks of the impossibility of imagining life from the African-American perspective: “I try to put myself in your shoes,” he sings, “and that's a good place to begin, but it ain't like I can walk a mile in someone else's skin.” As if African-American life is so mysterious and exotic that unless you were born to it, you cannot hope to comprehend it.

That's a copout. Say what you will about his song, but also say this: Paisley is in earnest. Credit him for the courage to confront this most thankless of topics. But courage and earnestness will net him nothing without honesty.

Every day, we imagine the lives of people who aren't like us. Those who care to try seem to have no trouble empathizing with, say, Cuban exiles separated from family or Muslims shunned by Islamophobes. For a songwriter, inhabiting other people's lives is practically the job description.

But where African-American life is concerned, one frequently hears Paisley's lament: how a white man is locked into his own perspective. That's baloney. Both history and the present day are replete with white people — Clifford Durr, Thaddeus Stevens, Eleanor Roosevelt — who seemed to have no great difficulty accessing black life.

One suspects one difference is that they refused to be hobbled by white guilt, the reflexive need to deny the undeniable, defend the indefensible, explain the inexplicable.

One suspects the other difference is that the people named above rejected the conspiracy of blindness that afflicts too many white people, allowing them to see a 13.3 percent black unemployment rate and call it laziness or drug crime incarceration as high as 90 percent black and call it justice.

These people were honest enough to see what was there and call America on it.

If Paisley wants to “walk a mile in someone else's skin,” it's not that hard. You do it with black folks the same way you do it with anyone else. You drop your presumptions, embrace your ignorance and listen to somebody who is living what you seek to understand.

It is vaguely insulting, this idea that there's something about African-American life that makes it more impenetrable than others. There is not.

If Paisley finds this skin impossible to walk in, the reason is doubtless simple: He's never truly tried.

To reach Leonard Pitts Jr., send email to lpitts@miamiherald.com. He chats live every Wednesday from noon to 1 p.m. Central time at www.miamiherald.com.

Deal Saver Subscribe today!

Comments

The Kansas City Star is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Kansas City Star uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here