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Confronting Racism and Sexism

The Myth of Race and Gender Neutrality in Music Theory

My turn toward race scholarship was born of two chance events. In 2014–2016, as an untenured assistant professor, I went through a harrowing and bruising battle for reappointment and then tenure and promotion at Hunter College, CUNY, in New York City. For almost two years, as time wore on, and as I wrote one legal memorandum after another in defense of myself, it became abundantly clear to everyone involved that the efforts of those who sought my dismissal were not based on what I was doing as a professor—my record of research, teaching, and service was significantly above average on all counts—but, rather, on the dark color of my skin. Ultimately, with the unwavering support of family (thanks Kazimir and Marina), friends and colleagues in the field (thanks Andrew, Joe, and Poundie), CUNY’s strong union (thanks Renee), and Hunter’s outstanding administration (thanks Andy, Jennifer, and Vita), I survived.

But then, Donald Trump was elected to the U.S. presidency on the heels of America’s first black president. These two chance events—my tenure battle and Trump’s election, in which white persons, especially white males, felt aggrieved by black advancement—are summed up by Carol Anderson with two words: white rage. In her book by the same title she says:

The trigger for white rage, inevitably, is black advancement. It is not the mere presence of black people that is the problem; rather, it is blackness with ambition, with drive, with purpose, with aspirations, and with demands for full and equal citizenship. It is blackness that refuses to accept subjugation, to give up. A formidable array of policy assaults and legal contortions has consistently punished black resilience, black resolve. And all the while, white rage manages to maintain not only the upper hand but also, apparently, the moral high ground. It’s Giuliani chastising black people to fix the problems in their own neighborhoods instead of always scapegoating the police. It’s the endless narratives about a culture of black poverty that devalues education, hard work, family, and ambition. It’s a mantra told so often that some African Americans themselves have come to believe it. Few even think anymore to question the stories, the “studies” of black fathers abandoning their children, of rampant drug use in black neighborhoods, of African American children hating education because school is “acting white”—all of which have been disproved but remain foundational in American lore. (3)

Black advancement triggers white rage, and this rage knows no political party, nor does it limit itself to certain geographic regions. White persons in music theory are virtually all left-of-center in terms of politics, and it is easy for such persons to think that white rage is limited to those who are right-of-center. This is a grave mistake, as Robin DiAngelo often states in her book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People To Talk about Racism. When liberal whites believe that problems of racism are limited to those who are right-of-center, it makes it virtually impossible to achieve any positive change in music theory with respect to racial justice. Any person, white or nonwhite, can fall victim to the fallacies that Carol Anderson describes above. However, white persons are far more susceptible to fall victim to these anti-black fallacies and the white rage that so often accompanies them, and this is true for all white persons regardless of their politics.

Ultimately, once I realized how whiteness works hand in glove with maleness in order to suppress both nonwhiteness and nonmaleness, I began to read feminist scholarship and authors such as Sara Ahmed, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, and Kate Manne, among others. After all, white supremacy is the child of patriarchy, not its parent. In this and five forthcoming blog posts I draw on themes from recent work in hopes of achieving a more equitable music theory.

One of the key things I’ve come to realize is how important maintaining the myth of race and gender neutrality is to music theory. In fact, once this neutrality is exposed as fallacious, the white-racial and male-gender frames—which I sometimes conflate to the “white-male” frame in this and future blog posts—of music theory will be in serious jeopardy, so it makes perfect sense that music theory’s white-male frame works relentlessly to keep in place the idea that what we do “has nothing to do with race or gender.”

In How To Be an Antiracist race scholar Ibram X. Kendi offers four key terms for my argument: “a racist idea is any idea that suggests one racial group is inferior or superior to another racial group in any way” (19), while “an antiracist idea is any idea that suggests the racial groups are equals in all their apparent differences—that there is nothing right or wrong with any racial group” (20). Further, “a racist policy is any measure that produces or sustains racial inequity between racial groups” (18), while “an antiracist policy is any measure that produces or sustains racial equity between racial groups.” I will use these four terms—racist idea, antiracist idea, racist policy, and antiracist policy—in speaking about music theory. Finally, and most important, Kendi says, “there is no such thing as a nonracist or race-neutral policy. Every policy in every institution in every community in every nation is producing or sustaining either racial inequity or equity between racial groups” (18; my italics).

To a large extent one could substitute “racism” with “sexism” above, with the significant caveat that females can also be white, an intersection I will discuss in my next blog post, “Race, Gender, and Their Intersection in Music Theory.” Thus, sexist/antisexist ideas/policies are also in play in music theory. In the same way that “racism is a marriage of racist policies and racist ideas that produces and normalizes racial inequities” (Kendi, 17), sexism is a marriage of sexist policies and sexist ideas that produces and normalizes gender inequities. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s Racism Without Racists is, to an extent, a monograph in service of debunking the myth of race neutrality, hence his term “colorblind racism.” Sara Ahmed’s Living a Feminist Life is, to an extent, a monograph in service of debunking the myth of gender neutrality, hence her term “feminist killjoy,” which she coined years before Feminist Life. This latter concept, one who insists on pointing out sexist structures and gender inequities in the face of fallacious gender neutrality, has had a profound influence on me. I wish to be considered both a feminist and antiracist killjoy in music theory by consistently pointing out race and gender inequities, among other inequities, in the field.

Generally, Kendi argues that “racist” is not a slur but a usefully descriptive term, and that the claim of “not racist” neutrality is often a mask for racism. He seeks to return “racist” to its proper use:

“Racist” is not—as Richard Spencer argues—a pejorative. It is not the worst word in the English language; it is not the equivalent of a slur. It is descriptive, and the only way to undo racism is to consistently identify and describe it—and then dismantle it. The attempt to turn this usefully descriptive term into an almost unusable slur is, of course, designed to do the opposite: to freeze us into inaction. (8–9)

In music theory we are “frozen into inaction” when it comes to race and whiteness and, consequently, we are unable to have the frank conversations we need. We have not yet begun the conversation on how we can begin to deframe what sociologist Joe Feagin calls America’s white racial frame, because we in music theory have yet to comprehend its very existence. Race scholar bell hooks goes one step further than Feagin in calling the white frame a white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, in order to show the “interlocking systems of domination that define our reality.” As with racism, music theory has trouble understanding structural sexism in the field. Though the field understands that there are too few people of color (POC) and women, it has not come to terms with how whiteness and maleness work in tandem to suppress nonwhiteness and nonmaleness.

American music theory is based on the racist idea that whites are superior to POC, a sentiment stated explicitly by significant music theorists like François-Joseph Fétis and Heinrich Schenker in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. By the mid twentieth century, when Jim Crow racism became untenable in the U.S., this music-theoretical racist idea was driven underground, yet it remained in full force in various ways, and remains so right up until today. This has created a slew of racist policies that advantage whiteness and disadvantage nonwhiteness in music theory. American music theory is also based on the sexist idea that males are superior to nonmales, which has created sexist policies. Music theory’s default stance is rooted in white-male assimilationism, another racist and sexist idea. As a result, that which is taught in the music theory classroom is remarkably white, and remarkably male. Kendi says “Assimilationist ideas are racist ideas. Assimilationists can position any racial group as the superior standard that another racial group should be measuring themselves against, the benchmark they should be trying to reach. Assimilationists typically position White people as the superior standard” (29). Assimilationist ideas are also sexist ideas if assimilationists position males as a superior gender, which has been the case in music theory. For these reasons over 90% of music theory’s fulltime employees are white, over 98% of the musical examples in our textbooks were written by whites, and 100% of the music theorists discussed in typical classrooms for core classes are white. The myth of race neutrality—the idea that race plays no significant role in the field—is a cornerstone of music theory’s white racial frame. And even though there are roughly 33% women in the Society for Music Theory, the myth of gender neutrality remains a cornerstone in the field as well, especially with respect to the music-theoretical topics deemed worthy of consideration. Despite the fact that music-theoretical research has, to some extent, branched out to include POC/nonmale figures, that which is taught in music theory classrooms remains resiliently white and male. By highlighting racist and sexist policies in music theory, and the dual myths of race and gender neutrality on which they are constructed, I begin the work of dismantling racism and sexism in music theory.

By Philip Ewell

Hello. My name in Phil Ewell and this is my blog. I am an activist for racial, gender, and social justice in the field of music theory. Everyone in my field knows that it is unremittingly white and male, but once I began to understand how whiteness and maleness work in tandem to suppress nonwhiteness and nonmaleness, I began to do the academic work in order to expose this unjust side of music theory so that we might deconstruct our white-male structures. Thus I now consider myself an activist in the field, one who advocates for change by exposing how whiteness and maleness suppress marginalized voices, and by pressing for the necessary changes so that all voices can be heard in music theory.

18 replies on “The Myth of Race and Gender Neutrality in Music Theory”

Thank you for this Philip. I just read the first post and look forward to the rest of the series now that the semester is finally over.

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Thank you for this Philip. And I look forward to reading more, especially on issues raised for music theory and the “other”, euphemistically labeled “people of color”.

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Thank you so much for initiating this critique. Although I am an ethnomusicologist (and Hunter MA alum), I have been getting increasingly involved in analytical approaches to world music. As a scholar who grew up with primarily white privilege (light-skinned Jewish-Tejano mix), I was at the same time aware of Otherness, and systemic racism. Scholarly or social pronouncement from on high have always struck me as being suspect.

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I have wanted to discuss this for a decade, but have not known how to begin the conversation. Thank you for your leadership in this. It has given me something of great significance to talk to my own students about.

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This is amazing. Thank you, Philip. I’m a college administrator who has recently found himself in position to influence music curricula. I also earned both my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Music Theory & Composition while rarely if ever seeing my culture (I’m a Black American) represented in my coursework (save the occasional reference to Jazz). Please know that I’m very much looking forward to reading the rest of your posts and will be following your work going forward with great enthusiasm. Again, thank you.

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I am discussing your blog posts, the SMT talk and the article it is based on with my class today. One of my students commented about the “huge amount of unpaid emotional labor in these attempts to educate white people, and yet too many are more attached to academic institutions than they are to people of color’s quality of life. I can’t help but wonder if there should be an academy to go into anymore.” It is unfair and unjust and yet I am grateful to you and to many, many others who are doing it. I am truly looking forward to your visit to UT later this year.

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I am reminded of Cornelius Minor’s assertion that dismantling racism is a disruptive work and that it will be opposed by those who benefit from the status quo. Thank you for helping me to begin the conversation with myself and my colleagues.

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Great thinking outside the (white) box!, which is an integral part recognizing (elite) music as an expression of a culture of oppression. That also requires us to understand how patriarchy and capitalism are also embedded in our musical esthetics. Thank you!

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