Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Colloquy: Race, Ethnicity and the Profession (Part 3 of 4)

[Ed. Note: The following paper was presented by Bonnie Gordon of the University of Virginia as part of the special session on "Race Ethnicity, and the Profession" at the AMS Meeting in Vancouver, British Columbia.  It is the second of three papers that form Musicology Now's first "Colloquy."  An introduction to the Colloquy can be found here, as well as links to the other papers.]


Listening for Disciplinary Timbres

     A few years ago I was shocked to learn that most of my graduate students had never read anything by Toni Morrison. Since then, I’ve been assigning her short story “Recitatif” in almost every graduate class.  The story narrates four encounters between Twyla and Roberta, two women who lived in an orphanage together as children. One is black and one is white, but Morrison makes it impossible to tell which is which. She replaces the racialized body with musical references and cultural bits like Jimi Hendrix and pink socks. Each time Twyla and Roberta meet, music sets the tone with purposeful ambiguity. For instance when they meet in a yuppie grocery store, Twyla notices classical music on the loudspeaker just as she takes stock of Roberta’s expensive clothes. It’s all recitative and no aria.

        The story uses sound and music to construct racial categories independent of the clues and context we often use. We need to listen not just to the racialized histories of the sounds we study but also to the conscious and unconscious racial timbres of our professional world including the demographics of our students, our colleagues, the AMS.  Unlike “diversity,” which Sarah Ahmed has argued involves managing conflict rather than eradicating inequality, talking frankly about “race,” as Morrison says elsewhere, can lead to progress. What might it mean to talk frankly about race?

     For starters our society is grounded in racist and exclusionary traditions. Classical music, which many of us, including me, have devoted our lives to is a symbol of class. Implicit racial bias exists as much in academia and the arts as it does anywhere else. And despite sustained efforts and good intentions this society still feels unwelcoming to some kinds of people. But those good intentions and actions are real, and shaming people who don’t make efforts or whose efforts seem to fall short won't help. Scholars should hash out the troubled history of our discipline. Those of us who live and work in the South know that this is painful work.  I teach at a school built by enslaved labor in a music department that had deep ties to a eugenics movement.  Our choir’s celebration of the UVA songbook will uncover minstrel songs, racist epithets, and celebratory depictions of rape.

     But it’s much easier to investigate past injustices than it is to acknowledge and address ongoing inequities, which require concrete institutional change. Marx said philosophers have interpreted the world but the point is to change it. Change will require people who think they are on the same page to disagree, it will involve huge mistakes and anger, it will cost money and it will mean giving stuff up.

     Think about curriculum. If I decide that I can’t conscionably graduate a music PhD who can’t hear in Morrison’s writing musical form and style and a deep interpretation of traditions that often elude the archival record, then I skip certain theoretical approaches, parts of the history of the discipline or entire genres of music. It will probably lead to some uncomfortable conversations about race. And it requires trusting my students to learn outside of the classroom.

     I’ll end by quickly summarizing some things I learned from the at least sixteen committees related to diversity, community engagement, and contingent labor that I have been on in the last three years.  Tenured white women with disabilities fill a lot of boxes. I owe much of my thinking on this to my colleague Richard Will, who chaired the UVA music department during years when UVA was a mess of diversity mandates, highly publicized power-based violence, and student protest.  Strong progressive department chairs can do a tremendous amount.

     First, this is not just an AMS project. We need to think as music scholars and practitioners and not in terms of what music society we pay dues to or what meeting we attend. I suspect that few people here make admissions or hiring decisions without someone who goes to SEM, SMT, SAM etc.... And we ought not to let the sense that other conferences feel more progressive get in our way. Ethnomusicology is deeply tied to the colonial project: think, first, explorers and then comparativists “capturing” the sounds of the natives. Other conferences may have fewer tweed suits, but ethnic clothing and hipster jeans have their own political problem.  Everyone has much work to do, and we need to do it together. And we need to pool resources on best practices around implicit bias, graduate recruiting, faculty hiring and undergraduate curriculum.

     Second, we who do have the privilege of institutional responsibility and the security of tenure need to think hard about contingent labor. In 1993 the AAUP released a study showing that the proportion of African-Americans in non-tenure track positions is more than fifty percent greater than the proportion of whites in non-tenure track positions. The 2013 “Taking the measure or faculty diversity report,” suggests that while institutions employ higher percentages of underrepresented minorities, they tend to do so in non-track jobs.  The academy in general began talking about problems of contingent labor in the 1980’s but Black faculty members had already been doing this for two decades.  Columbia students protested about this in 1969.

     Third, this can’t be an EOP numbers game.  In statistical speak a small field has a small N.  If you have three students in your PhD entering class and one is Latino, then 33% of your class is Latino.  But that one student does not change the departmental culture by 33%. And creating job descriptions in fields that have a higher representation of minorities also won't do it. Often those jobs go to white men. We need to think about building relationships and cohorts. I have been working with a grad student who graduated from Howard University on programs that encourage students to think about graduate music study and the humanities more broadly.

     This leads me to my fourth point. Graduate recruiting matters. The diversity literature calls this the pipeline. The job market is too late. What if all of the music societies and a cohort of PhD programs ran a summer recruitment institute for minority undergraduates?  What if the program reached out to students from minority-serving institutions? Everything we know about making it possible for minority students to comfortably inhabit predominantly white academic spaces says that students do better as cohorts than as token minorities.


     Fifth, college is also too late. The achievement gap is a well-known problem, but there also exists a very real artistic gap, which does just as much damage. As the cultural gap widens between children living in poverty and affluent kids, those growing up in poverty feel progressively more alienated, first from their public schools and later from their universities. And we know that approximately 38% of African American children and 32% of Latino children live in poverty. I’m not naive enough to think that the AMS can cure the structural inequities of the job market, the exclusivity of many music traditions, and the increasing disparities in higher education.  All of those contribute to the disciplinary rifts that got us here today. But we are supposed to be good listeners. We need to listen not just to words but to what Toni Morrison calls the truth in timbre.



Bonnie Gordon’s primary interests center on the experiences of sound in Early Modern music making and the affective potential of the human voice. Her first book, Monteverdi’s Unruly Women (Cambridge University Press, 2004), frames the composer’s madrigals and music dramas written between 1600 and 1640 as windows into contemporary notions of sound, body, voice, and sense. She uses vocal music written for sixteenth- and seventeenth- century Italian singers to illuminate our understanding of the music, science, and culture of that period. She co-edited an interdisciplinary and cross cultural volume of essays about courtesans entitled The Courtesan’s Arts, (Oxford University Press, 2006).


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