The troubling decision of a grand jury not to indict police officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of Michael Brown understandably sparked varied forms of protests, spirited commentary and impassioned debates. Some responses have been positive and very constructive while others have been less than productive.
One thing that is undeniable in regards to this tragic situation--it all boils down to the often emotionally fraught topic of race and the largely awkward manner we as Americans tend to handle and deal with the subject whether it be religion, sports, education, politics, law enforcement, media and so on.
A prime example of our knee jerk/defensive reaction to discussing racial matters occurred several weeks ago when country music megastar Brad Paisley set social media on fire with his colorful (term intended) comment. "Everybody, there's usually a show on Wednesdays, a new show that I've fallen in love with, it is so fumy. And so if any of you tuned into ABC tonight expecting to see the new show Black-ish... yeah, this ain't it. I hope you're all enjoying White-ish" as he amusingly looked at the crowd.
For those of you who are unaware of what Paisley was talking about Black-ish is the new ABC hit series about an upper income Black family that currently occupies the Wednesday 9:30 p.m. time slot. Such unintended publicity may even increase the show's already solid ratings.
While the joke was benignly awkward, it was funny and, in fact, was right on target. Some argue that the fact that Paisley who was co-hosting the program with fellow country music megastar Carrie Underwood told the joke before Darius Rucker, a Black country music star who was part of the super successful mid-1990s rock group Hootie and The Blowfish, was about to take the stage complicated an already delicate remark and resulted in the blogosphere snapping with anger and outrage. Yet, Paisley was stating an undeniable, if not uncomfortable truth for many people: the fact that country music is an area of music that is disproportionately White in its makeup--artists, representation and consumer base.
This is nothing new. Unlike its fellow genres of R&B, hip hop, or pop, country music has been known for its Eurocentric persona. Nonetheless, there are a small number of Black country music artists who have been on the scene for many decades such as Charley Pride. That being said, people of color, particularly Black Americans, have frequently flirted with or promoted country music in their songs.
Music aside, the major fact is that what many of his critics (oversensitive in my opinion) fail to understand is that Paisley was simply stating an undeniable truth (in a blunt and humorous way) about the state of the country music industry. The same can be said about Wall Street, Hollywood movie studios, Silicon Valley, the tech industry in general, many law firms, politics, academia and many avenues of American society. The majority of industries and institutions in this nation (especially at the upper echelons) are dominated by Whites, more specifically White men. The fact that so many people, in particular, so many people of color took offense to a comment that was so blatantly truthful at its core demonstrates a troubling degree and level of denial and misguided anger in regard to their perceptions of reality.
Reaction to Paisley's remarks reminded me of the comment made by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in 2009 when he referred to the American people as a "nation of cowards" when it came to addressing the issue of race. Holder, like Paisley, faced a firestorm of criticism for his largely truthful remarks. The difference was that the majority of criticism directed at Holder came from conservative Whites on the political right. With Paisley, most of the ire emanated from people of color. Such responses indicate to me that we tend to be unwilling or unable to accept hard truths about race when such remarks come from "the other."
It is because of such sensitivity that many people--across racial lines--are uncomfortable discussing an issue that is an integral part of our society. It is a searing topic that is not going to absolve itself from public discourse simply because there are too many people who are afraid to confront the issue.
We tend to talk at each another as opposed to one another or post anonymous comments from behind a screen. As our nation becomes more racially diverse on a daily basis, it is a subject that will demand honest and candid discussion. Hats off to Brad Paisley and Eric Holder for being brave and honest enough in speaking truth to power
Elwood Watson is a professor of History, Africana Studies and Gender Studies at East Tennessee State University. He is the co-author of Beginning a Career in Academia: A Guide For Graduate Students of Color (Routledge Press)