Recently, country singer Brad Paisley raised eyebrows—and rolled the eyes beneath them—with his new single, "Accidental Racist." It’s a defensive ode to wearing confederate flag T-shirts, and it features a guest rap verse from LL Cool J. Hours after its release, the song was thoroughly fussed over by media outlets. Was it a critique of pan-racial stereotyping? Actual overt racism in disguise? Or just a mind-bogglingly clumsy attempt at a "kumbaya" moment. Of course, there’s already one forum where such thorny questions about race are kicked around every day.
Andrew Ti is a writer based in California who runs the podcast, Yo, Is This Racist? Here, Ti and a guest discuss an endless array of questionable topics like fashion accessories and the South itself, five days a week, in a quest to answer the podcast’s titular question. Although he has no official training in the subject matter, Ti is helping to raise the national discourse with some of the funniest, most incisive commentary on issues that resist easy answers.
One day, years ago, Ti was engaged in a bout of typical, boring office banter when a coworker mentioned the cartoon character Yosemite Sam. This person pointed out how Yosemite Sam sometimes utters a string of cartoon swears, among them the term, "Cotton pickin’." (Usually when he’s crazy mad at Bugs Bunny.) It slowly dawned on everyone involved that they all had this same shared memory, and it had somehow never bothered them before. Within five minutes, Ti had created the Yo, Is This Racist? tumblr to catalog such prickly concerns.
"There are certainly lots of people doing much more academic work in terms of racism, and the idea of justice and how our society is constructed," Ti says. "Often, the things I’m saying aren’t that difficult to parse out—it’s more just what I bring to the table is a minor talent for stating it forcefully, and with a lot of expletives."
The writer’s expertise is more rhetorical than intellectual, but it’s clear that he’s thought about these issues. He frequently blogs about iffy things he notices, often concluding that they are indeed racist. A typical example might revolve around the parameters of using the n-word when singing along with rap songs. After attracting a following that would eventually lead to book offers (which he turned down to work on other projects), Ti was able to rely mostly on reader submissions for topics to delve into.
Later, he was introduced to Jeff Ulrich, cofounder of the podcast network, Earwolf, and he decided to branch out into a new platform.
It took some experimentation at first, before Ti could figure out the best way to present the subject matter through the podcast medium. Rather than a typical hour-length weekly version, he settled on a Monday-through-Friday format, with he and a guest parsing through a discrete fan-submitted issue each day. The podcast’s approach is of a piece with the quick hit-style blog that preceded it.
"My primary goal with the podcast initially was just to make something that would be fun and easy for my guests to do," he says. "Generally speaking, I like podcasts where there’s something 'to do’ rather than just a long-form interview."
Easy or not, the podcast opens up the concept of the blog and adds room for deeper discussion and multiple perspectives. On the show, Ti tends to take a rather hard stance on the thin-sliced topic at hand. In an effort to be succinct, and also for comedic effect, nearly every item brought up on the blog is ultimately deemed racist. In the audio format, though, Ti and guests like Paul F. Tompkins and Jenny Slate discuss exceptions and deeper shades of grey.
The host and his guests typically don’t do any real research before reaching conclusions, but the producers will fact check anything that sounds particularly egregious or wrong and turn a monitor toward the host with Wikipedia pulled up. Although some issues such as the "jive talk" thread in Airplane! tend to be more clear-cut than others, there’s nothing that really falls outside of the show’s purview.
"Often, it’s like 50% pretty obvious things that I’ll talk about just to spark a discussion, and another 20% more interesting things that are more nuanced," Ti says. "Then there’s a bunch of garbage and things not worth examining, and usually 1% Space Jam." He adds, "The only things forbidden are things that are too boring or obvious, and sometimes even those are fine."
Perhaps Brad Paisley’s misguided ballad will be spared after all.
[Images Courtesy of Earwolf]