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Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Anti-Racism in Music Education

There has been a shift in conversation this week. Teachers are joining the movement to counter systemic racism in our schools and are searching for the tools to do so in numbers I've never seen before. As a white music teacher myself, I am learning alongside you! For those who are new to this journey, today I want to share a collection of resources to serve as a starting place for your work to create an anti-racist music class.

1. Listen to People of Color's Voices

The most important thing to do when you're trying to unlearn bias and learn how to be an anti-racist teacher (and human being) is to listen. Listen long and listen hard. Particularly for white teachers, it is critical that we close our mouths and listen to the experiences and perspectives of people of color- right now Black people in particular. Resist the urge to immediately respond to posts you see, things you observe, or statements you hear by voicing your reflections or asking questions. Listen longer and you'll probably find the answer to those questions.

The first place to look is in your own personal life: who do you spend time with? Until you fill your life with people different from your own background it will be very hard to find genuine understanding. Beyond those personal relationships, here are a few specific recommendations if you are just getting started (this list is not at all exhaustive, I've tried to limit to a few to keep it manageable and to the point):

So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood by Christopher Emdin

Social Media
Decolonizing the Music Room (facebook) (instagram) (website)
LittleUpbeatClass (instagram)
Griot B (instagram) (youtube)
Handgames Project (instagram)
Hip-Hop Music Ed (instagram) (website)
Franklin Willis (instagram)
Charissa Duncanson (instagram)

2. Look at Your Lesson Content

First of all yes, if you've heard that a song has racist origins, stop teaching it. Might you reference the song in a lesson with older students (as in secondary grades) on the topic of minstrelsy or racism etc? Possibly. But don't have the students sing/ perform it as a "learning experience", even in that context. And within the context of elementary music, I have not yet found a good reason to use any of these songs for any reason.

Beyond that fundamental level though, there is so much more work to be done to transform our lesson content. Take a look at the performers you feature in the video and audio recordings you share in class, the musicians students learn about, the composers of the music students learn in class and perform in concerts, the characters in the books we use, the culture of origin for the songs we teach, and the musical genres we include in our repertoire. How many different people groups are represented in those areas? 

One important note to make here as we look to include representation of more varied backgrounds in our lesson content: check your sources. Don't just add the first "gospel song" arrangement you find for children's choir to your next choral concert- check to see who the composer and arranger are. Don't just search Pinterest for Black History Month lessons and use the first one you find- check to see who the author is and how/ from where they got their material. It's important to make sure as we seek to include voices of people of color in our material that those voices are actually theirs.

3. Look at Other Aspects of Your Teaching

Of course our classes are built on much more than lesson content. What behaviors do we consider "desirable" and "disruptive" in our discipline and management (and what types of students tend to exhibit those behaviors most frequently)? Who do we bring in as guests/ accompanists? What images do we have on our walls? What musical vocabulary do you encourage and discourage (what definitions do you consider acceptable for the word "beat", for example, or which term(s) are acceptable in class: arrangement or remix)? 

In the cases of both lesson content and other aspects of teaching, rather than pointing to specific examples I'll point back to the voices I recommended initially. There is an enormous amount of information and examples that I could not even begin to cover in one post- the only way to address it is through ongoing listening and learning.

4. Accept Change

I think this is actually the hang up for most teachers. Once we have a few years of teaching experience under our belts, teaching starts to get easier primarily because we can do certain things without having to think about them as much- sure, we add fun new lessons we pick up here and there, but we have plenty of material that we can teach without having to learn new material from scratch or come up with entirely new lessons. And if there were a list of all the songs I should stop teaching, and one list of songs to use instead, and I knew I could change them all once and be done with it, the task would be more manageable. But the reality is there is always going to be more learning to do. This is a lifelong process of listening and learning. 

Besides the enormity of the task, it can be hard to leave behind lessons and songs we have such fond memories of! But if we are serious about wanting all of our students to feel welcomed in our classrooms, if we truly value and respect all people and perspectives, then this is a non-negotiable. We have to make these changes and continue to change as we continue to learn.

5. Additional Reading

It was almost 2 years ago that I wrote an entire series of posts on the broader topic of social justice in music education, and I sought out expert input for each of the areas I covered. If you'd like to read further about my learning process, explore specific areas in more detail, and find additional resources to learn from, you can find all of my posts in the series and an introduction to the topic here. Be sure to follow up on the people I point to in each area and start listening to them:

You can also find more book recommendations in this post:

And recommendations for places to find music by people of color to listen to yourself and add to your lesson material:

I hope that this moment in history is a moment of real change, especially within music education, and I hope that this conversation continues to grow within our professional communities. I am continuing to learn myself. Please share additional resources you have found helpful in the comments below.


  1. Hi! I would like to reference this blog in a paper I am writing, do you mind sharing what year you wrote/posted this?

    1. Hi! Thank you for referencing- this post was published in June of 2020. Let me know if you need any other information!