Race to the top

Colour problem


It’s a Venezuelan rite of passage, and essential part of the el Sistema experience: the bestowing of a nickname. The act is less a sign of affection, more a kind of taxonomical shorthand, given names being far less relevant and less descriptive or identifying than one well-chosen sobriquet. During my time in Acarigua I was referred to as “Aladin” (Ala-DEEN), by virtue of my purportedly Persian features. My colleagues Stanford and Dantes were less fortunate as a relative measure, being lumped together simply as “Los Negritos,” or in literal translation, “The little (in the endearing sense) black guys.”

My experiences in Acarigua, well documented in this forum, might well be described as a magic carpet ride, and I might flatter myself in thinking that I opened “A whole new world” for the orchestra musicians, but the inevitable truth is that our collective re-christenings were based on race – in a manner that I personally found entirely inoffensive or devoid of malice. As I was probably the only person of Indian racial features within several hundred miles in Acarigua, I can easily understand how “Aladin” would be an instant visual identifier, even though the name reveals nothing about me as a person.

There’s the problem with race: it’s an artificial social construct based on the most superficial of cosmetic externalities. Failure to understand this distinction has led to discrimination of the worst kinds, perhaps never with more tragic consequences than the Rwandan conflict between Hutus and Tutsis, differentiated as peoples solely by minor variation in skin tone as arbitrarily determined by the Belgian colonists. Ethnicity, on the other hand, is a far more meaningful measure, incorporating ideas of religion, culture, language and identity, and not necessarily those inherited but also those adopted. Racially I may appear Persian. Ethnically, I’m perhaps more Western European, in terms of my education, political outlook, religious heritage, languages…and predilection for sparkling mineral water.

In this context, the discussion of race within North American el Sistema is problematic from the start: discussions of identity, culture – ethnicity – frame the issues much more clearly. The fact that the faculty of most Sistema programs rarely looks like the students is more an expression of cultural values than racial. This is not a situation for which anyone should apologize: participation is voluntary; this work is the best way to correct that imbalance; it is currently conducted by those with the will to do so; and its leaders are simply teaching what they know. Not all the work is good, not all of it is well-informed, some of it is very colonialist in attitude, but this is the reality of almost all social activity.

The situation is not without its nuances, but cultural imposition is more a danger outside of the musical activity than within. When a student uses bad grammar by what may be considered a formal literary standard, it might be better to parse the context before offering to parse the sentence, and ask the question: is this just an error, or is this a cultural form of speech?

If the lapse were not just a slip of the tongue, consider the causes. Spoken syntax can take the form and function of a shibboleth for a sub or counter-culture, entry into whose formal and informal social and economic networks may be a matter of survival for some. These parallel cultures can operate under strict admission codes normally rooted in but not limited to race. Members of any one race entering cultural spheres dominated by another typically face hostility and prejudice: racial counter-cultures are racist by definition, and are deeply rooted and constantly reinforced.

If what some consider bad grammar is in fact a cultural expression, correcting the student may actually be more harmful than helpful. It’s also useful to ask whether correcting the student serves any function other than satisfying the corrector’s need for didactic utility. Speech patterns are generally learned behaviours, and a one-shot correction is not going to change years of immersion. Sometimes – sometimes – it’s better to consider certain forms of divergent grammar as a different dialect. The best solution is not to attempt to speak the dialect, as a form of condescension at best, mockery at worst, but to model consistently the verbal behaviours you would like learned. It would contribute significantly to the students’ potential life and career outcomes were they to develop the ability to alternate between dialects, as a form of social and cultural capital, allowing them to engage with multiple ethnicities, each on its own terms. Replacement of culture is colonialism, addition of culture is cosmopolitanism.

I’ve endeavoured to avoid framing the issue from the perspective of one ethnicity, because each culture, regardless of associated race or races, creates its own barriers as a matter of self-preservation and self-propagation. Instruction in ensemble music making, regardless of the ethnicities predominantly serving or being served, is an effort to dismantle some of those barriers. The act may bear an element of arrogance and value-judgment, but this is true of all education, as I’ve said in this forum before.

Right now I don’t believe Sistema has a race problem. Twenty years from now, if the faculty/student picture hasn’t changed, we will, but I think that very unlikely. I’m fairly certain that twenty years from now we’ll have a different race problem: a tidal wave of outstanding musicians from minorities previously invisible within the performing arts, seeking entry into a symphony industry currently dominated by two racial groups and infamous for its glacial response to any kind of change. (There are exceptions – Dallas SO Heartstrings program comes to mind as one initiative leading this process.) But this will be a good problem to have, and hopefully Sistema practitioners will take pride in having created it.


Special thanks to Elaine Chang Sandoval, current Sistema Fellow at NEC, whose insightful writing and observations inspired this blog entry.




2 thoughts on “Race to the top

  1. Thank you Jonathan for this post. While I was in Acarigua, I was dubbed “El Gringo”. I don’t think that it was so much race that played into this nickname as more my ethnicity and heritage. I identify myself as an American with Mexican decent. But I wouldn’t say that I am fluent at all in Spanish. So here is a guy that looks like them, can sound “authentic” in the limited Spanish (at least Mexican Spanish) he knows, but isn’t completely fluent. There was a sense that they felt I had turned on my culture since I wasn’t fluent in Spanish. So, I became the “gringo”. It was taken in jest but I feel mine had a little underpinning of disapproval. I think they hadn’t really worked much with Americans with Latin American decent, that are quickly becoming common within the last several generations, that do not speak Spanish. We have chosen to integrate into the American culture head-on. But, now I do wish I spoke more Spanish and have been working more to get back to my roots. (Talk about language as a cultural inclusion!)

  2. Jonathan, i would be interested in your view of this issue that arose in discussions about race and El Sistema in the Philadelphia Symposium. A lot of reasons emerged from participants about the value of a conversation on issues of race in the U.S. El Sistema movement. I don’t think people were suggesting there was “a problem”; rather they felt discussion was valuable. One argument has keeps haunting me. In the U.S. movement we are preparing mostly racial-minority young people to gain mastery and success in an artistic expression that is dominated by, as you say, two racial groups to which they do not belong. If they sustain their studies, as we all hope they will, they are highly likely to move into situations of racial sensitivity, possibly tension. Hurtful occasions could arise–there is a lot of racism in the U.S. Do we do our students a disservice, do we avoid preparing them well for success–if we don’t at some point have openhearted, honest, sensitive discussions within our sites about issues of race? It may be that the music program community is well positioned to address those issues for advanced students. Jonathan how do you see that question? How do others?

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