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Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Race in the Music Room: Representation

Over the last several weeks I have been tackling the topic of inclusion for traditionally marginalized people and perspectives in music education, and today we're talking about race. My focus in this series is threefold: reflecting underrepresented perspectives and people, responding to the needs and perspectives of marginalized perspectives and people, and respecting those differing perspectives and people as we do so. The topic of race is an enormous one, so I have split it up into 2 posts- last week I wrote about respecting and responding to students of color in this post. Today I want to focus specifically on "reflecting" (representation). I most certainly do not claim to have all of the answers, or to even be raising all of the right questions, but as with all of the topics in this series, my hope is to spark reflection and conversation for music educators so that we can take productive steps forward.

To help me address this topic I sought insight from two people of color who are music teachers I admire: Danielle from Music On a Cart and Czarina from Little Upbeat Class. I've also been doing a lot of reflection, reading, and talking with colleagues and others in the community over the last year in particular, so the thoughts below are a compilation of all of our ideas.

1. Incorporate more equal representation of races in:

a) examples of famous musicians/ music history
This is not a new idea, but when we are presenting examples of famous musicians we need to be including composers, performers, and other musicians from all different racial and cultural backgrounds! Take a careful look at which people (and which people's music) are represented in lessons and on bulletin boards and posters .

b) any pictures of people in general
Music history timelines and bulletin boards featuring musicians are one thing, but what about other visuals in general? If you have posters to demonstrate posture, signs related to behavior management, or other visuals in slides, handouts, worksheets, and letters home, do the people in those visuals represent a wide range of racial backgrounds? One specific personal example: I created posters to show the "give me five" hand signal for us to use school-wide, and I paid extra money to buy a high-quality image of a dark-skinned hand to use on the posters. I didn't know how much of a difference something so minute would make, but I was reassured when, a few weeks into the school year, I overheard a dark-skinned upper elementary student comment to his friend in hush-toned wonder, "I think that's MY hand!". Normalizing and respecting people of color happens in those tiny details!

It's important to note here, too, that not all visual representations are created equal. Textbooks, posters, and other lesson visuals that make an effort to include more diverse representation without taking the time to consult native sources can easily turn into caricature. Thankfully there are a lot more resources that represent people of more varied races in accurate and respectful ways available now, but it's important to check and think carefully before using the first resource you find!

c) song literature sources and topics
I discussed more in-depth my thoughts on using folk songs with racist backgrounds in music lessons in my previous post here. But beyond eliminating racist song choices, we can better represent people of color by including music written and/or performed by musicians of color more regularly in our lesson content and performance material.

d) books, stories, and other examples
There are lots of other little ways we represent and exclude/ignore people groups. If you use books as starting points for lessons, what kinds of people and perspectives are represented in those books? When you use stories to illustrate a point in class, who are the characters? If you are trying to give an example and use a "generic" name for an imaginary person, what kind of name do you pick?

2. Include representation throughout the year, not just during certain holidays

I discussed this idea in my post on avoiding exoticism in world music teaching as well- one important way to normalize different people groups is to represent them, in the many different ways mentioned in the point above, when their background is not the main reason for bringing it up. Don't limit study of African American musicians to February, or Spanish language songs to Hispanic Heritage Month. Make it a regular, normal part of your curriculum throughout the year.

3. Be careful to check sources before sharing

This is definitely a sticky issue but it needs to be addressed: don't blindly share resources and ideas with others without checking to see if they are accurate representations of the people groups they claim to represent! With social media and the internet, the wealth of ideas and resources to which we have access is wonderfully huge. But whether we are getting ideas from others or passing them along to others, we need to take the responsibility to make sure the resource isn't misrepresenting, marginalizing, appropriating, or exoticising people groups. We can't simply take an idea we find in a textbook, TeachersPayTeachers resource, teacher workshop, blog, or online forum and assume it has already been checked for accuracy, no matter how much we trust that source. All of us are learning together. If we can each do our part to make sure our sources are accurate and respectful, we can slow the spread of inappropriate materials. Frankly there are too many resources being shared again and again all over the internet that blatantly misrepresent marginalized people groups, and it is painful to watch them continue to spread into more and more classrooms!

4. Look for, and seek to change, ways that lesson content and assessment strategies favor characteristic skills of one racial/ cultural group over another

When we think about which people groups are represented in our lessons, we need to go beyond the song content and visuals on our walls. What musical skills are we valuing in our curriculum? Sure, maybe we include some hip-hop songs as examples in class, but do we value the ability to rap or manipulate a sample with the same importance that we do reading standard Western music notation? Are we fostering the skills and interests students need to be the next Chance the Rapper to the same degree we foster the skills and interests they need to be the next Mozart?

5. Put students (and others) of color in leadership

Another important way to make sure more people groups are represented in our classroom is to look at who is standing on the podium. The reality is, a disproportionately high percentage of us music teachers are white. It's important for our students to see people of different races taking leadership in our classrooms! Bringing in guest teachers, conductors, and artists, whether in person or even via Ted Talks and other videos or via video conferencing, is an excellent way to diversify the perspectives represented in the leadership of our class. It's equally valuable, and often more realistic (especially for elementary music teachers), to find ways to encourage our students to take leadership in the classroom as well. Because of what they see in their schools, many students of color will have trouble picturing themselves as teachers or conductors. Giving them the experience of doing it for themselves can have a profound impact on the students themselves and their peers who see them at the front of the class! One simple way I have found to get all of my students to take more leadership in lesson activities is through my warmups- read more about how I do that in this post.

Be sure to check out the resources I listed in my previous post on race in the music room here. You'll find several books and articles to read on the topic, as well as websites and social media accounts to follow, to help us all continue to learn, reflect, and talk about this important topic! I hope you'll get involved in the discussion by sharing your thoughts in the comments below. And if you want to stay in touch and get more content delivered straight to your inbox, don't forget to sign up here for the Organized Chaos newsletter!

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