Framing “Classical” Music in Racial Equity Contexts

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Framing “Classical” Music in Racial Equity Contexts

Alexander Laing, Principal Clarinet, The Phoenix Symphony


Calling orchestral or so-called classical music “white music” isn’t a framing that fits comfortably around many folks’ practice. This is particularly true for ALAANA (African, Latino/a, Asian, Arab, Native American) practitioners or those who teach ALAANA students. I get that on a personal level.

My college application essay was all about me trying to square the circle that I was a black person who didn’t play “black music.” In the essay, I talked about how the essence of the music I played – so-called classical music – existed outside the bonds of race, space and time. I was saying, “I’m not a black person playing white music; I am a black Artist trying to reveal Truths.”

Later on, I used history to challenge the frame that this is white music. I brought music by black composers, particularly spirituals, to my performances. I wanted to connect myself to the Fisk Jubilee Singers, Paul Robeson, Roland Hayes, Marian Anderson and the tradition of the concert hall spiritual. I was saying “I am part of a lineage of black artists who play this music.”

Both of these ways of interrogating the frame that “classical music is white music” have truth in them. I am a black artist trying to reveal truths. I am part of a long tradition of black artists who play so-called classical music.

And yet, there are data and experiences that support the frame that, here in America, so-called classical music is, indeed, white music. As recently as 2014, 88% of musicians, 84% of conductors, and 92% of orchestral board members were white (source: League of American Orchestras).

So what are we to do with these facts, particularly when we’re talking about practicing music and equity in one space? One thing we do is tell the story – to our students, or, as I did, to a college admissions officer – that this music isn’t white or black – it’s beyond that.

That framing rests on an ethic of universalism. This concept – of a universalist ethic – is something I first heard articulated by Jennifer Harvey in her book Dear White Christians. According to Harvey, a universalist ethic “presumes that the fundamental common denominator on which we should focus is our sameness – on what it is we supposedly all share.” This, she says, is in contrast to a particularist ethic, which “recognizes that there is no one shared standard against we might measure or interpret our experiences of race, nor one to which we may all be held similarly accountable.”

It is universalism, Harvey says, that leads us toward “…approaches to race or racial justice that ignore the conundrum of whiteness by speaking in abstract, universalist platitudes about shared humanity. Obviously we are all human beings. But such discourse fails us in our attempts to sustain critical anti-racist, racially just work that empowers white people to attack white supremacy.”

I think this framing – of a particularist ethic – offers me a way to locate what I’m doing when I play spirituals, or at Gateways Music Festival. I’m participating in the particular story of black artists and black practice spaces for the music. For me, that’s really important.

It was through the universalist frame that I – a young, 20th-century bi-racial black person – could locate myself in the heroes’ journeys of Mozart, Beethoven and Mahler.

But I’ve found that there are still important opportunities for inquiry and growth when I look at the music with the particularist framing that highlights the music’s relationship to eliteness and whiteness.

For instance, relative to ALAANA students, that frame (““orchestral and so-called classical music is elite white music”) might present unique opportunities for inquiry around race traveling and class traveling. Does learning so-called classical music have any impact on the cultural mobility of ALAANA students? Does it bear any relation to codeswitching? How might we unpack those conversations with our students?

(For more on this, see “Free Your Mind: Afrocentric Arts Education and the Counter Narrative School,” a chapter my brother Justin wrote for the book Culturally Relevant Arts Education for Social Justice: A Way Out of No Way.)

Or, with regard to equity: might we lead our students in inquiries around questions like: “Why is it that orchestra halls often live on some of the best real estate in town?”

Simply put, one thing I’m saying is this: the music may be dear to us, but it’s not precious. As artists, we know it can withstand interrogation and tell different stories. There’s power in the “music points to truth” universalist frame and the hero’s journey of the artist. There’s power in the particularist frame that reveals the stories of ALAANA peoples’ long tradition and presence in the music. There’s power in the particularist frame that reveals the stories of the music’s elite whiteness.

The music is many things.


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