Since 1986 the Society for Music Theory (SMT) has given “Outstanding Publication Awards,” to recognize “significant contributions to music theory, analysis, or history of theory.” In the thirty-four years since SMT began giving awards, 152 authors/editors have been recognized. Only three, Kofi Agawu (1994), Catherine Losada (2016), and Su-Yin Mak (2008), were persons of color (POC). Thus 98.0% of SMT publication-award recipients have been white. Similarly, only two topics on music that is not part of the white racial frame—Marc Perlman on Javanese Gamelan (2005) and Martin Scherzinger on the Shona mbira song “Nyamaropa” (2002)—have been recognized with an SMT Outstanding Publication Award. Considering these five awards outside of music theory’s white frame, the last such award happened in 2016. Thus for the most recent four years only whiteness has received an Outstanding Publication Award from SMT—no POC have been recognized, either as recipients or as subjects of the publications in question.
Music theory publications are governed almost entirely by white persons, which contributes to a racial imbalance in published material. SMT has four official publications: Music Theory Spectrum, Music Theory Online, SMT-V, and the SMT Newsletter. On SMT’s website there are 66 persons listed as members of the editorial staffs/boards for these four publications. Only three—Daphne Tan (Spectrum), René Rusch (MTO), and Kara Yoo Leaman (SMT-V)—are POC. SMT’s current publication-committee makeup is similarly skewed in terms of race. SMT’s Publication Committee has thirteen members with no POC and its Publication Awards Committee has eight members with one POC (Noriko Manabe). Thus 95.1% (63/66) of SMT’s publications are governed by whites and 95.2% (20/21) of the two relevant committees are governed by whites. Not a single indigenous, black, or Latinx person—three groups that account for roughly 30% of the U.S. population—is a member of SMT’s music theory journals’ governing structures. Music Analysis, the main journal of the United Kingdom’s Society for Music Analysis, has even fewer POC. Of 39 persons on their Editorial Board and Advisory Panel, not a single POC is listed. Finally, my own situation indicates how music theory journals keep POC at arm’s length. I, an African American, have over thirty publications in five countries in two languages and I’ve never been asked to serve on an editorial/advisory board by a U.S. academic music publication. (I’ve never even been asked to serve on a conference program committee, regional or national.) By contrast, I serve on one such board in Ireland (Global Hiphop) and two in Russia (musicology). Though admittedly anecdotal, my situation shows just how loath American music theory is to recognize POC and their publication achievements, even when they are almost all firmly part of its white racial frame as my publications generally are.
In publishing music-theoretical peer-reviewed research and granting outstanding publication awards, the myth of race neutrality has led to the mistaken presumption of fairness, objectivity, and merit. If only the written work and nothing else is judged, the thinking goes, that which is rewarded is most deserving of recognition. These presumptions have given the white racial frame solace over the years in thinking that it is being “not racist.” But the statistics I cite above tell a different story. In “No Small Matters: Reimagining the Use of Research Evidence From A Racial Justice Perspective,” David E. Kirkland unpacks how white framing has used research evidence to promote whiteness while suppressing blackness:
Objectivity as fair, even-handed, and neutral replicates the false assumptions inherent to objectivity as real and attainable. That is, neutrality is a political act that implies some even or fair treatment of a subject or a thing. This equality defies equity, because treating all things the same in human science is a corruption that omits the fundamental reality of human difference. Fairness is not objective, neutral, or even-handed. Objectivity is none of these things either. By understanding how these assumptions operate, we see that we have masked the use of research evidence in cheap robes to position it in a place of authority as opposed to a place of utility. This authoritative positioning has worked throughout history to reinforce the master scripts of racial hierarchy as opposed to rewriting those scripts. So often throughout history, research evidence has been used to enforce master narratives of White supremacy and anti-Black racism while also conditioning us to believe that this social order is, in fact, legitimate. To not have to acknowledge the use of research evidence in the maintenance of White supremacy and anti-Black racism is itself an act of White supremacy and anti-Black racism.
We in music theory have not acknowledged how we use our research evidence to maintain and promote whiteness in the field. Nor have we acknowledged how we use our research evidence to maintain and promote maleness. The lack of this acknowledgement is “an act of White supremacy and anti-Black racism.” It is also an act of patriarchy and sexism.
Publications and publication awards are crucial in gaining employment in the professoriate, as well as in being successful in the process for tenure and promotion, a process that relies heavily on such publication recognition. The lack of recognition of music theorists of color is one reason that, among associate/full professors in music theory, only about 6% are POC, while c. 40% of the U.S. population are POC. With virtually no POC representation in music theory power structures, it is unlikely that anything will change soon. While many of the white persons who govern music theory publications and awards agree that there should be more POC in these structures, they are generally against the one sure method of increasing the number of POC: required benchmarks for the number of POC in music theory’s structures, that is, forcing the inclusion of POC at all levels of structure and recognition, a topic to which I’ll return in “Music Theory’s Future.” Recently, in “The Emancipation of Music in Higher Education,” Eileen Hayes, president of the College Music Society, suggested that all CMS committees have at least one POC member, so such required inclusion is already part of the conversation. These benchmarks should apply to Outstanding Publication Awards for POC as well. The idea of insisting that theorists of color be recognized with Outstanding Publication Awards will cause alarm for music theory’s white frame, but the only scenario in which this alarm is justified is one in which race-neutral policies are in effect, which they have never been; as Kendi writes in How To Be an Antiracist, “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). (Similarly, there is no such thing as a nonsexist or gender-neutral policy.)
POC are often asked to serve on less-significant committees in white power structures, especially on diversity committees, in tokenistic fashion. For example, though I’ve not been part of music theory’s publication structures, I served for six years on SMT’s Committee on Diversity, as member and chair, from 2004 to 2010. This is how music theory generally views service for POC, on diversity committees where music theory can be viewed as being inclusive, while covertly maintaining the white status quo. I personally therefore no longer agree to serve on diversity committees. Nor will I agree to serve on other committees that are all white within music theory power structures. I will respectfully decline such requests and suggest to ask again once the number of POC (and nonmales) on the committee in question reaches an appropriate level. In other words, I will no longer serve the function of tokenism. In “How to Succeed When You’re Marginalized or Discriminated Against at Work,” Alan Henry reduces this distinction between publication-committee work and diversity-committee work to “glamor work” vs. “housework.” In short, glamor work produces opportunities for growth and success, while housework produces, well, work, without the opportunities and benefits that come with glamor work.
In the seven most common music theory undergraduate textbooks, 98.3% of the examples were written by white persons. In these textbooks there are 33 POC composers in the six textbooks that featured at least one (Aldwell/Schachter has none). Of those 33, only two were not black (African descent)— Chen Yi (Chinese female, b. 1953) and Toru Takemitsu (Japanese male, 1930–1996), whose examples, one each, appear in the textbook by Clendinning/Marvin. Thus our music theory examples are literally, from a critical-race perspective, black and white, and nothing else. By focusing all efforts, minimum though they are, to diversify race based solely on blackness (again, African descent), music theory’s white racial frame entirely marginalizes and erases nonblack (non-African) POC, which is extremely common in the U.S. In “Why Are Asian Americans Missing from Our Textbooks,” Ellen Lee unpacks this unjust erasure. It should go without saying that contributions from nonblack POC deserve music theory’s consideration at all levels: classrooms, conferences, publications, and the racial/ethnic makeup of all governing structures. In the seven most common music theory textbooks, which represent 96% of the market share, only two examples from 2930 total examples are written by Asian composers, and those two examples appear in just one textbook. Music theory can do better than this. Music theory is lucky: Tomoko Deguchi, Noriko Manabe, Nancy Rao, and others have already shown rich aspects of Asiatic music traditions. In order to enrich music theory textbooks, all music theory has to do is ask, and listen.
The racial makeup of publication awards, journal editorial staffs/boards, glamor committees, and the composers represented in our music theory textbooks represents quantitative whiteness in the field. I’ll end with a qualitative example. The undergraduate textbooks by the following authors contain at least one example by Stephen Foster: Benward/Saker, Burstein/Straus, Clendinning/Marvin, Kostka/Payne/Almén, Laitz, and Roig-Francoli. Foster was one of the most important names in nineteenth-century American blackface minstrelsy, and he himself wore blackface from time to time. “Oh! Susanna” might be a good example of parallel phrase structure, but what about the second-verse lyrics, written by Foster himself: “I jumped aboard de telegraph and trabbled down de riber / De lectric fluid magnified, and killed five hundred nigger.” Theory textbooks routinely include lyrics to songs, often in French, Italian, or German and in English translation, but Foster’s are obviously excluded. Note the absurd caricatured “negro” dialect of the blackface minstrel, who did so much to dehumanize blacks in the buffoonish subhuman practice of blackface minstrelsy. In “Race, Blacksound, and the (Re)Making of Musicological Discourse,” Matthew Morrison explains how blackface led to exclusionist practices in musicology; the same could be said for music theory. The inclusion of a white supremacist composer like Foster in our music theory textbooks represents the extraordinary insensitivity of music theory’s white frame—and of the textbook publishers I hasten to add—with respect to racial matters. It also points to our utter inability to recognize how whiteness has shaped the field. In “Dinah, Put Down Your Horn: Blackface Minstrel Songs Don’t Belong in Music Class,” Katya Ermolaeva speaks of the harmful legacy of including these racist songs in children’s songbooks. It’s time to remove these racist reminders—these music-theoretical Confederate monuments—from music theory textbooks as well.
(Note: I apologize if I’ve misrepresented anyone’s racial identity in this post. I also note that my original post did not include Catherine Losada among POC for Outstanding Publication Award Recipients, and I apologize for this oversight. Thanks to Miguel Roig-Francoli for pointing this out.)