Creating an Anti-Racist World
“The arts, it has been said, cannot change the world, but they may change human beings who might change the world.”Maxine Greene
As I write this, the rapid increase in global coronavirus cases telegraphs the continuation of online learning in the fall for most schools around the United States. The video of George Floyd’s murder on May 25, reminiscent of the visual horror of Emmett Till’s murder in August of 1955, has ignited peaceful protests around the world that have contributed to changes in American society we were sure we’d never see: the renaming of the NFL’s Washington Football Team, the removal of the Confederate emblem from the Mississippi state flag, the banning of the Confederate flag by NASCAR and the Pentagon. All segments of society, including the arts and arts education, have been called to reflect on the reality of white supremacy, systemic racism, and our individual and collective bigotry that resists empathizing with or listening to the truth of anyone but ourselves.
As teaching artists, we have a role to play in this work. It is to create art, to illuminate meaning, and to change human beings by inspiring reflection and a deeper understanding of the human condition. Many have already responded in word and deed, quickly transitioning performance and learning to online platforms and making powerful statements such as Anthony McGill’s #TakeTwoKnees challenge.
We must also consider a few questions. What is the educational and social impact of sitting in front of computer screens in our homes versus sharing physical space and time in classrooms or community spaces with our students, teachers, and institutional partners? How do we respond to the real threats of arts education being devalued in this historic period of existential reckoning? What role should Western European repertoire—and even Western theoretical systems of understanding, such as functional tonality—play as we reflect upon white racial frames and calls to decolonize the curriculum? How do we prepare to effectively guide the children, teens, and adults in our charge in processing the trauma of both a global pandemic and a radical accounting of race and privilege.
I believe that teaching artists have a great opportunity at this time. Not just to refine our use of lighting and other technology to facilitate online teaching, but to stop and reflect on how to be anti-racist in our teaching and our other creative work. It is time for us to humble ourselves to listen and to learn with an intensity we rarely demand of ourselves. It is a challenging and vulnerable place to live, but also a place of grace and calm. This process of seeking multiple perspectives on truth parallels many religious paths and Eastern philosophy, where it is about the journey, not any sense of arrival. Therefore, the goal is just to keep becoming anti-racist.
The work is already beginning. Elementary music teachers are discovering and removing blackface minstrel songs from their curricula, and arts presenters are rethinking season programming. At The Juilliard School, mandatory inclusion training began over a year ago. We have started conversations to further expand the racial and ethnic diversity of the creators whose works are programmed in all performances, required in our annual auditions, juries, and recitals, and referenced in all theory and history classes. On May 31, the Manhattan School of Music pledged that all 2020-2021 performances would feature works by African-American creators or those from the African diaspora. The League of American Orchestras, on whose board I serve, is publicly acknowledging and apologizing for its active role in systemic discrimination based on race within American classical music. Artists are standing up and demanding justice and civility with the recent “We See You White Theatre” letter and the “Letter on Justice and Open Debate” in Harper’s Magazine.
The time is ripe for teaching artists to redouble our efforts to change people who might change the world: to remind them that choice-making, expression, and creative problem-solving are at the core of being human. As the world wrestles with this global pandemic to save lives, and reflects on how to better respect and honor difference, we cannot forget that the arts and artistic experience summarize human perspectives on living and demonstrate the quality of our shared existence. We are artists, educators, facilitators of reflection, guides to artistic experience, and animators of the mind. Let us choose to be even more anti-racist in our creative work to demonstrate the wisdom and beauty of all cultures and peoples.