17 years later, Eminem’s 2002 single “White America” remains relevant as ever in deconstructing how America’s social fabric is stitched together by the ugly undercurrents of white supremacy
I’ve set my playlists to shuffle (as any rationale human being would — what sociopaths out there are actually listening to songs in alphabetical order?!) and Eminem’s “White America” sporadically comes on. I realize I’ve been listening to this song on and off for the past 17 years, and while I was perhaps subconsciously “down” with its message as an 11-year-old, its only now, living as a POC adult in Trump’s America, that I’m better able to decode how important and relevant this song actually is.
I’m going to attempt to break down the key lyrics, and hopefully do justice to Eminem’s message with my interpretations:
The song starts off with this:
“America! (ha ha ha) We love you
How many people are proud to be citizens of this beautiful country of ours?
The stripes and the stars
For the rights that men have died for to protect?
The women and men who have broke their necks
For the freedom of speech the United States government has sworn to uphold
….or so we’re told”
The genesis of Em writing this song: in the mid-80s - late 90s, members of the government famously along with the vocal support of Former Second Ladies Tipper Gore and Lynne Cheney, effectively tried to censor free speech in rap music which they claimed was infecting America’s moral fabric. Tipper Gore, co-founder of something called the Parent’s Music Resource Center, helped introduce the “Parental Advisory: Explicit Content” label that you see on albums deemed to be “controversial”. So just so we are clear, none of these individuals were up in arms over protected free speech of the KKK, Westboro Baptist Church, or GOP— symbolic groups of upholding the white, Anglo-Saxon, patriarchal system, but yes — rap music is clearly Public Enemy #1. (As a side note — in ultimate irony, this song which demolishes music censorship, has a “clean” version, too.)
The main chorus:
“White America! I could be one of your kids
White America! Little Eric looks just like this
White America! Erica loves my shit
I go to TRL, look how many hugs I get”
Em’s speaking directly to “white America” here, tauntingly. He knows that he’s been able to inspire an entire generation of white youth to be catapulted into the world of “oh-so-scary-to-white-parents” rap music solely because he’s one of them. He’s white, and they are too — they find comfort in seeing someone of their likeness spitting the same cool game as black rappers (whom their parents have likely forbidden them from listening to) do. Eric and Erica, of course, represent the proverbial all-American white suburban teenager who live privileged, untainted lives that are now under the threat of Eminem’s terrifying rap influence.
“Look at these eyes — baby blue, baby, just like yourself
If they were brown, Shady’d lose, Shady sits on the shelf
But Shady’s cute, Shady knew Shady’s dimples would help
Make ladies swoon, baby (Ooh, baby!) Look at my sales
Lets do the math: If I was black, I would’ve sold half”
This is relevant as ever today— white people often profit by co-opting and appropriating POC’s art, culture, and even physical features simply because they are white. In this white man’s world, when a white person does something, that ‘thing’ automatically has more class, more intellect, more virtue, more truth, and more beauty in it than when a person of color does it. In this context, a black rapper could have had the same exact lyrics and rhythmic flow as Eminem and would be less appealing to white suburban youth just because he’s not one of them (I actually don’t know how true this is for today as it seems trash SoundCloud mumble rappers are appealing to white kids regardless of their race…but that’s another story.)
“See, the problem is I speak to suburban kids
Who otherwise would’ve never knew these words exist
Whose moms probably would’ve never gave two squirts of piss
’Til I created so much motherfuckin’ turbulence”
This line is speaking to the notion that white America only cares about “explicit context” purportedly “infecting” the morality of culture insofar as its effect is on white people. The very fact that Eminem was the rapper that started the early 2000s puritanical censorship movement is a testament to this notion — he’s directly talking to white kids. If they genuinely cared about its effects on everybody, they would be equally disturbed that rap music is having more of this so-called impact in African-American communities, as it after all, is a black art form. It clearly has a far greater reach in the black community, but so as long as its reach is kept there, there’s no need for any outrage and creation of any “Parent’s Music Resource Centers”, is there?
“Surely hip hop was never a problem in Harlem, only in Boston
After it bothered the fathers of daughters startin’ to blossom”
Precious ears of white children in American suburbia are being adulterated by a white man ringing black art into them. Its inconsequential if a black rapper is reaching black kids in Harlem with potentially the same exact lyrics/messages as Eminem’s — they’re black — what does it matter? Who cares about the “moral and cultural fabric” of their culture?
“That’s why they put my lyrics up under this microscope
Searchin’ with a fine tooth comb, it’s like this rope
Waitin’ to choke, tightenin’ around my throat
Watchin’ me while I write this, like, “I don’t like this note”
All I hear is: ‘lyrics’, ‘lyrics’, ‘constant controversy’
Sponsors workin’ ‘round the clock to try to stop my concerts early”
I plan to write an article (or an entire novel) on this topic alone one day. The religious puritans/cultural “preservers” will always push for civility over humanity. They will turn the other cheek when it comes to invasions in Iraq, purposeful incarceration of African-Americans, and discrimination against LGBT+, but they are unsettlingly preoccupied with “language” and “tone”. Naturally, they are going to come after lyrics, especially when its lyrics of a genre created by a people they fear. I may sound like I’m being a bit hyperbolic here but the gist of the message I’ve understood this weirdness to be is: bomb away, lock up away, stop and frisk away, hate crime away, sexually assault away — just be generally otherwise polite in nature. Look no further than the recent overwhelming defense by white elites of Ellen DeGeneres buddying it up with war criminals like George W. Bush for a good example of this. Perhaps not that hyperbolic, after all.
I’ll end this with Em’s final line in “White America” as a message to the “cultural preservation” puritans: the Cheneys and Gores of the world. Who care more about censoring profanity than dismantling white supremacy and patriarchy. Who are more perturbed by songs and video games about violence than by US waged wars killing civilians overseas. Who will give their own lives for maintaining false civility over humanity and justice —