I’m a big fan of old music, old books, old movies, often finding a sense of artistry, character, depth lacking in the modern fly-by-night special-effects sensation-driven counterparts. But besides their timeless artistic, poetic or philosophical value, there are qualities in these classics that are disturbing to our modern selves. They reflect the given and accepted values of the times in which they were made and the mere fact that some of these things seem strange or outdated is a means to measure the needed changes that are slowly evolving. What was accepted as the norm back then and what is no longer excusable now (at least by a certain class of thinking people) is good food for thought.
Non-controversial examples include those movies in the 40’s and 50’s when everyone smoked— and smoked a lot. And the accepted notion that the first—and often only—response to be beaten down by life, betrayed, disappointed, devastated by the turn of events— was to go directly to the bar, do not pass go and get rip-roaringly drunk.
Then things like Frank Sinatra walking past a working woman in Ocean’s Eleven and patting her butt without a second thought. All the movies with black folks as maids, porters, waiters, cooks and always happy and deferential. Not to mention the warring “Indians” and “inscrutable Chinese,” replete with cliched pentatonic riffs and gongs and drums. And then there was blackface, casually accepted and propagated from our beloved Hollywood icons—Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland and more.
Of course, all of it looks horrendous from our modern perspective and while some innocently just shrugged their shoulders as “the way things are” back then, those being stereotyped certainly suffered in direct and indirect ways. But behind it all was something much more profound than creating and perpetuating stereotypes. There was a mass, collective, willfully ignorance of how all “isms’ work and thus, little hope of understanding or considering changing the way in which they were purposefully fostered so select people could enjoy a power and privilege they neither earned nor deserved. Without the language to even begin such discussions, racism was seen as something to either deny or hide or shrug off or cry out powerlessly against. It also existed as an isolated event, without thinking about how it was connected to sexism, classism, homophobia, religious intolerance and beyond. Without the language to identify it, to speak about it coherently, to think about intelligibly, we were stuck. Until now.
My Thursday morning at the AOSA Conference was Diversity Education (not Training) with Nicole Robinson and it was simply stunning. (See her website https://ccbydesign.org/about for more details). Through simple card games and real talk, we looked at 12 different “isms”, defined which way the power flowed in our current culture and placed ourselves on the grid, surprised to find out that a straight white male like myself was middle to low on the power scale in areas like religion, class and education. In this no-blame, no-shame approach, the room was an instant “we,” all of us both more aware of our particular patterns of privilege and determined to speak out on behalf of those lower down. And eventually change the hierarchy. It was the most inclusive, empowering class of its kind and everyone left feeling both good (for the right reasons), more aware, more hopeful and just a bit more determined to proactively begin to turn things around.
This was not business as usual for our music-education organization, which mostly has chosen to step over or around the muddy waters of courageous conversations and politic issues that directly affect the children we teach. Now it feels like a major shift in the wind, something not possible even a few years ago. And that gave me hope that yet more of our beloved country is waking up and realizing that the isms are not givens, but creations of our own lesser selves, that silence is complicity and then the world awaits each and every one of us to share the burden of righting the wrongs and creating a sustainable and just future—or even just a future for the children we teach. As we educate ourselves and begin to recognize the devious ways the privileged and powerful try to set us against each other, see the common links between all isms (things like “follow the money” and “feel bigger by trying to make others small”), we become the citizens that our democracy expects. That our AOSA leaders are leading us in this direction is reason for celebration. May it keep moving forward!