Race to the Top – part 2


I didn’t intend for the subject of race to become a two-parter, but my last entry generated a fair amount of private and public inquiry, the former being limited almost exclusively to the question “What about your experience in the music world?”

That’s not something I see much value in discussing in any forum, public or private. As a member of the smallest racial groups within the classical music sphere, with but a single standard bearer, I have no doubt that I’ve been the victim – and perhaps sometimes even the beneficiary – of racism, but the extremely subjective nature of talent assessment in this industry means that it would nearly impossible for me to verify either with absolute certainty. So rather than waste energy debating moot points, I try to get on with my life and focus on being better at what I do. And when someone is so foolish as to suggest that I want to be the next Zubin Mehta, I look them in the eye and tell them I’m quite happy being the first Jonathan Govias, thank you kindly.

The fact of the matter is that racism, much like sexism, is one of the most obvious forms of discrimination and is simple enough to correct cosmetically, (whether the will exists is another story) but improving the race or gender quotas is quite different from addressing the very distinct, very separate issues of diversity and discrimination.

Diversity isn’t just about optics. Admittedly, in Canada and the USA there is a strong correlation between race and socio-economic standing, but the general industry practice of admitting some visible minorities to an orchestra does nothing to address the underlying issue if those rare individuals come from the same middle to upper-class backgrounds as the remainder of the musicians.This is one area in which Sistema work has real, demonstrable social impact, by ensuring equality of opportunity across socio-economic strata. But there are other kinds of diversity beyond the visible, including cultural and intellectual. Sistema work can certainly express cultural diversity, but can it foster the intellectual variety as well? Therein lies a far greater challenge, and a topic for another entry another day.

Diversity aside, the discrimination problem is far deeper and more insidious. Prejudices manifest in how we engage with children or adults based not just on their race and gender, but also on their attractiveness, their weight, how extroverted they may be, how talented they are perceived to be or whether they’re just plain likeable. There’s even research to suggest these factors go far beyond the teacher-student dynamic, encroaching on the parent-child relationship as well. This behaviour is so common and so pervasive in scope that some degree of biological imperative might well be inferred. From the NY Times article linked above:

“Like lots of animals, we tend to parcel out our resources on the basis of value,” he said. “Maybe we can’t always articulate that, but in fact we do it. There are a lot of things that make a person more valuable, and physical attractiveness may be one of them.” – Dr. Andrew Harrell, University of Alberta

If there existed a Harrellian Hierarchy of human social standing based simply on advertising impressions, pretty Caucasian girls would be at the top (a fact one has had the courage to acknowledge, even if she failed to address the negative outcomes of the sexualization and objectification that are concomitant), associated with success and high standard of living, with overweight, unattractive minority boys (that was me, growing up. I’ve changed BMI since…) at the bottom. But it’s that kind of discrimination which is far more common and far more damaging than we like to admit, because it’s the kind in which we all engage.

In my previous entry I noted how racial sub or counter cultures were racist by definition. They are also normally reactive and protective in nature. This context severely prejudices any conversations that could be had with children on the topic of racism when those same children may go home to households in which the principles of discrimination are culturally and verbally reinforced night after night. Eric’s question posed in my last entry is borne of an appreciation of these sensitivities. When working with minorities, do we validate this divisive messaging by acknowledging the truth, or deny the reality these children will face? And how much effect would either assertion have, given the imbalance of influence?

We’re not powerless, however. As someone with two young daughters, I can state with certainty that children are far more attuned to our actions than our words, and the values and behaviours we model carry much greater weight than any conversation. Our first obligation in addressing all forms of bias, particularly those beyond race and gender, is to ensure our behaviour is consistently egalitarian and supportive of every student in our care. This represents a much more challenging proposition than conventional interventionist approaches, demanding far more patience and apperception and offering far fewer immediate rewards. This course of action doesn’t negate the potential impact of a well-chosen, timely word; rather, it gives that word legitimacy and sincerity.

Sistema programs will help change the massive racial imbalance in one industry, but racism remains a matter of nurture. Far more challenging to shift is our nature as human beings to categorize and treat one another based on any number of superficial or false impressions or qualities. 49 years after the Civil Rights Act in America, we still have work to do.



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