The field is having a moment right now about the lack of black and brown people in American orchestras – on stage, backstage and in the audience.
Some of the energy in the current moment can be framed as being about resources: if orchestras don’t become more connected to more people – different types of people – we will suffer for it.
At the same time, some of the energy is coming from people wrestling with questions of equity, trying to figure out what the right thing to do is, and how to do it.
Thinking about that latter part myself, I’ve found some help in Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation by Jennifer Harvey.
In the book, Harvey (a white Christian herself) looks at past efforts to reconcile black and white separateness in American Christian churches and how and why these efforts have largely failed.
Orchestras and churches are different things, of course. They have different goals and different relationships between their missions, equity and racial justice. Still, I think some of the concepts Harvey talks about relate, particularly one of the biggest in the book: universality versus particularity.
According to Harvey a universalist ethic “presumes that the fundamental common denominator on which we should focus is our sameness – on what it is we supposedly all share.”
This, she says, is contrasted by a particularist ethic which “recognizes that there is no one shared standard against we might measure or interpret our experiences of race, nor one to which we may all be held similarly accountable.”
It is universalism, Harvey says that leads us towards “…approaches to race or racial justice that ignore the conundrum of whiteness by speaking in abstract, universalist platitudes about shared humanity. Obviously we are all human beings. But such discourse fails us in our attempts to sustain critical anti-racist, racially just work that empowers white people to attack white supremacy.”
In the orchestral world we gravitate towards a universalist view – that orchestral music is a universal art form. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard things like this. I’ve said some of these things myself.
Consider though, how taking a universalist or particularist view impacts our thinking about orchestras and cultural equity. (For more on cultural equity look here for Createquity’s piece Making Sense of Cultural Equity, and here for a previous post I did.)
Orchestral music is expensive in large part because of the forces that it requires. A Beethoven or Mahler symphony requires the players the score requires. Likewise, the years of training it takes for musicians to be able to bring the scores to life is a relatively fixed thing. But even allowing for that, it’s hard to deny that, within the ecosystem of nonprofit arts, orchestras occupy a position of privilege.
A universalist ethic inclines us to believe that orchestral music is, itself, a universal thing and our place in the arts ecosystem is related to that. It leads us to focus on how this music is True in some larger sense of the word. With that in mind we see our lack of diversity (our whiteness) as an injustice. Everyone should have access to this Truth.
On the other hand, the particularist ethic says that orchestras are certainly not universal and the music isn’t either. Recognizing that orchestras and orchestral music are not universal, a particularist ethic brings the whiteness of orchestras into view differently.
From a particularist view, we’re more inclined to see that the privileged position we enjoy as orchestras is not just the result of how True the art form is – our universality – it’s also because of our whiteness.
This is not to say to say orchestras were rewarded for our lack of diversity. It is to say that orchestras, as white institutions, benefit from the history and forces that privilege whiteness.
In the conversations about the lack of black and brown people in orchestras there are probably a few good reasons not to talk about whiteness, but that absence could also indicate a universalist point of view. Knowing that gives us the opportunity to ask ourselves: how would things be different if we were operating with a particularist point of view?
(Shout out to my mom Susan Laing who’s working to advance racial justice within her church and brought Dear White Christians to my attention.)