I was advised not to post this article on accounts of it being on the front page of my teaching website.
However, after being on the receiving end of some racist comments after a premier performance of a composition, and recently sitting at a table at a dinner listening to racist comments towards east-asian musicians, I am doing so, tonight, guilt-free.
If this article at least raises awareness towards an issue that is very real and painful for me and others who experience it also, that is a bonus. However, I refuse to be silent any further.
Thank you, Joseph, for your kindness.
Update in response to feedback suffixed.
* * *
“What?! You’re black!”
When I rang the doorbell, I did not expect to hear those words. It hit me like a cannonball to my chest; I was winded.
“Yes,” I said, “is that going to be a problem?”
“No,” they replied, “it’s just that you didn’t sound … ‘black’ …, on the phone.”
How does one sound black?
This question has been at the fore of my mind since this encounter, and at the back of my mind every lesson since. I learned quickly and vowed never to be found in a situation like that, ever, again. From that point, I made sure to put a portrait front and center on every piece of professional promotional material. It was a statement to avoid any such unpleasantries in the future.
It was general ignorance; sometimes people do not realize the effects that their words have on the person receiving them. What this person was referring to, was, that I did not sound like the stereotyped black person, often shown on the television. This is something that I have experienced outside of my work, but surprisingly it hurts more when it is to do with my work; at least there I thought people were above it.
On one occasion, I received a phone inquiry for lessons from an overly enthusiastic woman. She was eager, and said all the right things until the final moment in the phone conversation when she said:
“I have always wanted to learn to play music, and you will be the best teacher for me.”
“Right,” I replied “we will have to meet … ”
“Yeah” she interjected, “you people are always so good at music, I mean you all can dance, and have such good rhythm.”
I remained silent for the rest of the phone call until I signed off with “I’ll be in touch”, of which I most certainly was not.
Discrimination can be both negative and positive, just because a person is saying seemingly pleasant things does not hide the fact the statement is discrimination, or potentially racist. “You’re black, so you must be good at music”, is no different from “You’re black, so you must be aggressive”.
I recall meeting someone for the first time, during a dinner, and this person promptly told me about their favorite toy from when they were younger; a gollywog. With glee, they told me it's name, and how they used to take it everywhere they would travel, all the while, ignoring the offensive caricature of what it represents. The icing on the cake was asking if I knew, Debussy’s ‘Golliwog's Cakewalk’, and might perhaps play it later. This might sound like a sketch from a bad comedy show, but this was a very real, and a very troubling encounter.
Returning for a moment to our doorbell encounter, it should speak volumes in regard to a person’s character, and society at large, when an entire viewpoint of a person is changed, from when you hear them, blindly, and when you actually see them.
Two encounters recently that are burned into my mind, the first, a person shook the hand of my white male student when my wife was introducing me because I could not possibly be the highly-qualified, trained classical musician whose house they were standing in.
In the second encounter, a woman approached me after a concert shocked to see my black face greeting them after listening to a premiere performance of one of my compositions. This ignorant woman then proceeded to tell some insensitive and racist anecdotes. My training kicked in; I smiled and nodded politely not wanting to make a scene in front of a packed auditorium.
How does one sound black?
It is remarkable to watch people change, their body language from when they see me, when they hear me speak, and then when they hear me play. The fact that when you see me, you see a black person and not a person is a problem, but not the root cause. The shock and surprise are not the problems either. These are all symptoms. The true problems lie in society, and that is a discussion for another day.
* * *
My heart is warmed by the support I have received after posting this article. I wrote it quite a few months ago but was advised not to post it by my peers, due to the polarising contentious subject matter. I am so moved by the support people have shown and the harrowing accounts they have shared of their own personal struggles.
One thing I have learned from the experience is, be vocal; the people who say hurtful things either hide behind our silence or are ignorant of the impact of their words. In every case, we need to educate them.
In the future, I will definitely speak first. My thanks again, Dylan.
Dylan completed his music training with honours at Colchester Institute, where he studied piano with Australian pianist Lesley Young, and composition with British composer Dr Mark Bellis. While studying, in 2009, Dylan won Colchester Institute’s Canon Jack Award for Solo Piano adjudicated by Andrew Ball. A composer, promoter, and advocate of contemporary classical music, Dylan joined the membership of Colchester New Music in 2014.
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