We need to redefine 'white noise'


White noise can do more harm than good to activist movements.

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Image by Frankie Fouganthin

By Martha Hobson

The roar of the Black Lives Matter movement has reached a lull. And what we are left with, from many people, is white noise.

White noise is a background noise so dull and muted that it manages to block out any loud sound. However, it is also the noise we hear, mostly from white mouths, of self-fulfilling, passive, efforts to support BLM. White noise deafens us to any sharp, impassioned information, and rather lets us be convinced we’re doing good through our diluted calls to action. We have heard that ‘silence is violence’, but possibly more violent is white noise.

For younger generations, social media has become a nest of translucent activism. Perhaps inadvertently, many people are causing white noise by speaking too much. By blindly reposting things and dipping toes into semi-awareness, there’s a consistent flow of information that by proxy mutes it all.

Fake news spreads unquestioned; trauma posts of racial violence are shared like candy. Podcast host, Akilah Hughes said, “When I say ‘don’t look away’, I don’t mean consume black death like it’s a meme on TikTok. I mean look in the mirror.”

Young people are keen to show solidarity but often end up mindlessly dancing on sensitive topics. People are letting loaded language slip off their tongues, using the Holocaust as a casual point of comparison to other injustices, pretending to understand intensely complicated international conflict from reading a few infographics. Kids are making cutesy illustrations and songs about BLM, in ways that strip it of its seriousness.

Of course, the motive behind this is positive, but BLM is a serious movement. It’s been a summer of reckoning, pushing us to question the systems we blindly believe in, to think about racial inequality on every scale.

The other day, I was listening to Gil Scott-Heron’s ‘The Revolution Will Not be Televised’, the crux of which is that the revolution, fundamentally, exists in our minds. In the 21st century, where social media has such a huge presence, it’s important to make sure the ‘revolution’ finds some existence outside of the screen, and inside ourselves.

Social media platforms have become far more dynamic places. People are teaching each other and learning and finding a political existence. BLM has opened doors of awareness and shown that social media can be so much more than photos.  However, it’s important that this duality is kept separate, without shrinking an entire history of discrimination into your unrelated Instagram caption. There’s a danger of taking meaning out of the movement and becoming numb to what these injustices really mean.

On June 2nd, within seven hours, over a million posts of a black screen were blocking the Black Lives Matter hashtag. Regardless of whether you think black screens are an effective form of activism, it is a perfect example of white noise. It is that collective dulling and filling of space with things that are not terribly meaningful, that is consequently silencing voices we need to hear.

Racial discussion from older generations is similarly dull. I overheard many conversations at the time with groups of older women, who spoke about George Floyd in an awkward, boring way, about articles they’d read and pretty much unanimously agreeing and moving on. It is this dead chit-chat, and the circulation of the same ideas, same lens to see injustice through, that ultimately helps block out any possibility of new voices, Black voices, active voices. Ears are stuffed with happy, familiar white noise.

The older generation also has more actual power to make change, so should be more subject to new ideas and challenging status quo. In a recent New York Times article, the writer reports of a neighborhood in Chicago where white families are moving into mostly Black areas, “sometimes in effect replacing Black residents with yard signs that read Black Lives Matter”.
The writer also speaks of “self-professed white liberals”, this epithet perfectly construing the type of ‘cool’ antiracism that becomes more lifestyle than political standing. It is self-fulfilling and more about one’s own image than what one does to uplift, and upheave oppressive systems.

Corporate businesses also have a huge role to play, with the greatest platform to make material change. However, rather than taking this perfectly plated opportunity to redefine themselves, many companies have just focused on social media and some rather empty performative actions. Many companies thought a black square on their social media platforms was more than enough. Maybe they posted some Black models on their page in an intentionally ‘diverse’ way. Spotify had 8 minutes of silence on Blackout Tuesday; Lego told online affiliates to remove links to police-themed sets. Many brands had their own forms of frankly just kind of weird responses.

Martin Luther King famously told us that the real enemies of racial justice were the white moderates. Perhaps in fear of falling into this category, white people say a lot of meaningless shit.

White noise helps numb world wrongs. People are able to live comfortably while also feeling reassured we haven’t forgotten about injustices. Or worse, that other people don’t think we’ve forgotten.