Whoopi's White Noise Comes with a Study Guide

Here's a reality check for all those who think today's students simply need better teachers, more seat time and higher test scores:

  • A Utah high school student wears a pillowcase resembling a Ku Klux Klan hood to a spirit day rally; shortly after, a mixed-race student blogs about it, and other students receive hostile and racially tinged texts. An image of a burning cross is sent via cell phone.
  • Jewish students in upstate New York report that their daily high school experience includes being called "kike," hearing accusations that they killed Christ, listening to Holocaust "jokes" and having coins thrown at them.
  • In North Carolina, a teacher tells her immigrant students that they should go back over the fence to Mexico.
  • Graffiti targeting racial and ethnic groups, including a swastika, is found on a whiteboard in a California middle school.
  • An out gay student in Missouri is harassed daily by his peers, and one of his teachers tells him that he is going to hell.

No, it's not 1954. These incidents happened this school year. Depressingly, there's no shortage of examples. They happen day in and day out, in urban, rural and suburban schools across the country. They're not hard to find.

How do kids learn this stuff? Partly from parents, partly from peers, and partly from a media culture that packages it and finds that it sells.

Messages of hate aren't confined to the radical fringes of society. They are coded and threaded throughout our political rhetoric. They can be heard on talk radio and in schoolyards. And they're common in popular music.

That's the message of White Noise, a new musical that opened in Chicago on Saturday night. Produced by Whoopi Goldberg, the show follows a top-selling music producer who specializes in packaging promising artists into blockbuster stars. He takes a racist white-power pop band and convinces them that, if they agree to code their lyrics, they can go mainstream. He turns another act, two black brothers, from a soulful hip-hop pair into grotesque gangsta rappers.

In less than two hours, the show manages to entertain -- it's very well packaged, after all -- and provoke a lot of thought. It's a morality musical, and embedded in the catchy lyrics, the easy laughs and the brilliantly symbolic design are some harsh realities. There is a world of hate out there, and it is being packaged for consumers. Are we listening? And how should we respond?

These are questions that Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, has grappled with for nearly 20 years. That's why, when the producers of the play approached us, we agreed to partner with them to produce a study guide for high school and college audiences.

There are some songs and lines in White Noise that are uncomfortable to hear. Too often, we respond to slurs by turning away, or laughing and pretending they're "only jokes." White Noise helps us listen to and confront the ugliness that's infecting our society. It also encourages action.

Great art makes you think and feel. In a talk-back at the theater earlier this week, I saw how it can start a conversation. One after another, I heard people say they felt uncomfortable even as they tapped their feet to the music, but that they also found themselves trying to change how they behaved and listened when they left the theater.

They talked about the responsibility to know who you are and what you believe, and to own that identity in conversation. They talked about the need to call out hate, bigotry and prejudice when they hear it. And they talked about the importance of seeing the "other" as a human being.

All that from a play.

So, for those who expect our schools to produce global citizens, a word: We need to pay attention to more than the academic basics. We need respect for all to be a cornerstone principle of every school. And we need to remember the power of art to transform.