Ethnicity and Music Education
IAWM list - January 23, 2007
Thank you for your interesting email, Jenny. You
mention an oft repeated
idea which asks why people of color should be interested in European
art music, when they have their own rich cultural traditions.
Ethnic traditions should be a central part of education, but shouldn't all
students also be given equal access to training in Western classical music?
Classical music is a part of every American's or European's heritage
regardless of their skin color.
If we become over zealous in basing music education solely on ethnicity, we
risk practicing musical racism through bourgeois essentialism that presumes
to define black and white forms of taste and ability. Perhaps this is one
reason why African-Americans are so badly under-represented in classical
music. In effect, we practice a form of musical segregation.
Interestingly, a similar problem arose among the "Women's Libbers" in the
1960s and 70s. As part of their newly found cultural freedoms, women began
exploring concepts of "cultural feminism." They argued that certain traits
are innate to women, and that those characteristics must be revalued and
reintegrated into society in order to bring a balanced gender identity to
By the 1980s, it was felt that cultural feminism was overly essentialist.
Essentialism risks creating forms of biological reductionism that define
certain kinds of behavior as "natural" to specific genders, races, or
cultures. Racists, for example, might have an essentialist belief that
certain groups are biologically disposed toward criminality. Sexists might
code certain behavior, such as intuition, as innately feminine, while coding
logic as masculine and superior.
One of the best examples of this criticism was Donna Przybylowicz's
influential 1989 article, "Toward a Feminist Cultural Criticism: Hegemony
and Modes of Social Division", _Cultural Critique_ 14 (1989-90): 259-301.
Przybylowicz argued that coding behavior according to gender could be
ironically turned around by patriarchy to reaffirm and consolidate its
oppression of women. About two years ago, the President of Harvard showed
just how true Przybylowicz's warnings were. In a widely publicized talk, he
suggested that the low representation of women in science and engineering
might be due to some sort of inherent genetic inability. Those comments,
along with other problems, caused such anger among the Harvard faculty he
was eventually relieved of his presidency.
It is a great idea to give African-American children a solid foundation in
their own musical traditions, but when we see that African-Americans
represent less than 2% of the personnel in our orchestras, we know that
something has gone wrong. And why is James DePreist one of the very few
recoginized African-American conductors? And how many recognized
African-American classical composers can you name?
Here are some interesting websites for those interested in profiles of
African-Americans in classical music:
And to go back to the origins of this thread, when we see how easily
American society accepts the racism of the Vienna Philharmonic (if it
notices at all,) we know there is work to be done. We accept musical racism
and segregation without even thinking about it.