- Racial Equity
- Talk About Race
While indulging in a late afternoon nap, I was awakened by a phone call from a dear friend inviting me to see “White Noise: A Cautionary Musical” at the Royal George Theatre in Chicago. Produced by Whoopi Goldberg, and inspired by real-life singing white separatist twins, Lamb and Lynx Gaede, better known as Prussian Blue, the musical explores what happens when Max, a ruthless, money-hungry record label executive, commissions Jake, a young producer, to turn a beautiful, blond-haired, blue-eyed set of small-town white supremacist sisters (and a skinhead boyfriend) into America’s most beloved pop act, White Noise. The rise and somewhat fall of Eva and Eden Siller is juxtaposed with that of their label mates, the Blood Brothas/ers, Dion and Tyler. Ivy League graduates, the brothers want to make family friendly, Will Smith-esque rap music, whose themes err on the side of American patriotism. As young Black men, Max believes they’d be more marketable (read: profitable) if they were spun into “gangsta rap” artists.
Chronicling the highs and lows of White Noise and Blood Brothas/ers, the musical attempts to address three points. First, pop music artists are nothing more than well-constructed manifestations of record label executives’ capitalist dreams. Second, we as consumers will blindly accept any bit of music that has a catchy beat and an addictive chorus without giving any thought to the message or where the artists’ politics may lie. And third, racism is real, and still exists in America. While points one and two ring true about the current state of pop music and how many of us digest it, the third point fails in the greatest way a message about racism can fail. The problem with Goldberg’s “White Noise” is that it approaches racism in the way that most Americans already understand and acknowledge it; an ideology only practiced by poverty-stricken, skinhead white supremacists living on the fringes of society in small towns, trailer parks, or the backwoods of Oregon (apparently). Exposing audiences to this type of racism is problematic because it does not address the real, everyday, sometimes unknowing, racism that many of us experience, witness, and possibly practice. Positioning racism as something that only neo-Nazi, white separatists/supremacists adhere to distances the rest of us from the real, everyday problem of racism; the type of racism that influences laws, public policy, popular entertainment, sports, and daily interactions. “White Noise” makes it seem as though the messages that the David Dukes and Lamb and Lynx Gaedes of the world tout are individualized occurrences and bear no reflection on mainstream society. That misidentification allows for Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh to have highly successful broadcast programs, politicians with covert racist platforms to continuously be elected into office, mothers to get charged with a felony for lying so their children may have a better education, and teachers to hold mock slave auctions with little to no repercussions.
Another problem with “White Noise” is that it tries to show racism as cyclical and not as cause and effect. After the climax of the musical, the Siller sisters’ mother tries to express the moral of story by exclaiming, “We hate them! They hate us! They hate us! We hate them!” as if racism has no beginning and no end, this abstract that no one can explain. Racism is not simply about hate; it is also about a perceived entitlement to power and control, and rudimentary supremacy. The musical attempts to show commonality between a fictional white supremacist pop group and “gangsta rap,” by suggesting both are founded in racism. Creating a “gangsta rap” group to conflict with a white supremacist pop act shows exactly how out of touch and ill-informed the writers and Whoopi Goldberg are about hip-hop and pop music. The Blood Brothas/ers hit song, “Nigga Gonna Shoot the White Boy” blatantly speaks to the NWA-era of commercial rap music, which brought an onslaught of hysteria among mainstream (white) America, who saw rap music as responsible for the perceived destruction of (white) American values. The various rap artists and their messages that Tipper Gore and other privileged individuals took issue with in the 90s was not about Black racism (or “reverse racism”), but instead a frustrated political response to the racism they were experiencing by LA County police officers, and a society that continues to implement systematic practices to demean and marginalize racialized Americans. Though it acknowledges its existence, the musical does not reinforce enough who is in charge of the music industry and what fuels it. It also does not speak to the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that allowed for media conglomerations like Clear Channel to prosper and monopolize popular music and radio play. Rap and hip-hop are clearly not without fault with their frequent themes of misogyny and violence, but the equivalency is not a group of Hitler-quoting Oregonian white kids singing “Niggers Suck,” “Welcome to Auschwitz,” and “Mexican Vacation.”
Not to take away from her experiences as a Black woman or instances where she feels like she has been slighted by Hollywood for her racial identity, it is difficult to fully accept lessons of racism from Whoopi Goldberg as someone who has also defended Mel Gibson as a non-racist. Listening to the beliefs of neo-Nazis in musical form for two hours is not the way for Americans to begin a dialogue about race in the United States. It’s more of a way for disengaged individuals to pat themselves on the back for acknowledging the existence of racism in America, and recognizing that it is inherently bad, without actually having to become invested in changing the course of racial inequality and how we perceive difference in this country.
Side note: As part of its “Teaching Tolerance” project, the Southern Poverty Law Center partnered with ‘White Noise’ to create a study guide related to the musical. (insert *side eye*)