“You Might Be Left with Silence When You’re Done”
The White Fear of Taking Racist Songs Out of Music Education
By NAfME National Conference Presenter Martin Urbach
This article first appeared on Medium.
I recently shared a link as a conversation starter on the Kodaly Educators Facebook page. This article was highlighting the racist history behind songs like “Jimmy Crack Corn,” and “Eeny Meeny Miny Moe,” and others. The thread quickly became lively and heated.
This group has just over 7,000 members and seems to be majority White. ← emphasis on “seems” as I scrolled around about 700 members and could find only a handful of non-white-passing members. Recognizing that this is a flawed way of collecting data, yet it is not a wild assumption as most of the music teaching profession is White. To be precise, nearly 9 out of 10 pre-service music teachers are White.
As I write this, there are 360+ comments, written in a few days since I first posted the link: “12 childhood nursery rhymes you didn’t know were racist.” You can find the article here. You can find the post, in the Kodaly Educators Public Page here.
As in every Facebook music educators group conversation, I expected to find a range of opinions and was (and still am!) excited to have an insight into what/how/why the “system” of music education across the country might feel about this. As one might expect, there were folks who agreed, who were not sure and who disagree with the article. One thing that is evident from the post, is the feeling of fear that White teachers have when it comes to discussing issues that have been racialized and that have racist tones, like these songs. White teachers are scared that they themselves might be called racists for teaching songs like this, but I think even more importantly, they are afraid of the “silence” they think will wash upon us once “we’re done taking out all the racist songs.” How fitting of White supremacy culture that White teachers perceive that once we get rid the racist songs, there won’t be any songs left to sing. This of course could not be further from the truth.
Whiteness thrives on fear, and when we are afraid, we get defensive. It is human nature. This defensiveness in turn, turns a conversation about systems into personal attacks and defensive strikes that go from #notallwhiteteachers to “I don’t do this” to “It is not my fault” to “What about my love for song X which is how I learned how to count.” Pivoting away from discussing systems and toward discussing individuals robs everyone of opportunities to dissect the problem radically; meaning at the root. At the core, what needs to be addressed is the system of white supremacy which allowed for minstrel songs and other racist songs to make it into the songbooks the teacher training programs we teachers pay thousands of dollars to learn from to be normalized and accepted as “the norm.”
In one hand, I deeply understand the feeling of fear of walking on eggshells and not knowing whether or not we are doing right by our students. I empathize with it, and commend all teachers who are guided by the tenet of “Do No Harm.” Although it is not possible to guarantee that we won’t ever do harm, yearning for it is honorable, and should also be the bases for how we discuss and process another tenet of teaching; to err is to be human. We. Will. Make. Mistakes. To this, we White teachers WILL make mistakes around the curricula we teach to our students when it comes to race, because we have been denied (by White Supremacy Culture) the opportunities, spaces, guidance, and skills to discuss race/racism. We literally do not know how to do it or see it. The best we have been socialized to do is to say: “I see no race,” and to actually believe it.
On the other hand, I feel angered and deeply disturbed by the idea that White teachers fear that “there won’t be any songs left to sing/teach if we continue with this witch hunt” because we call on them/us to dissect our curriculum and repertoire critically and with a lens on race. There are literally hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands and even millions of songs written in the whole history of music. People have been writing songs since people have been people. This fear of silence prohibits the afraid to peel the onion, find what’s at the core, and hold one another close as they untangle the ugly together and plant new seeds to harvest.
This fear then is followed by massive resistance and even anger that this call is even on the table. On their 2015 essay “Decentering Whiteness,” Hitchcock and Flynt describe one of the experiences of centrality as: “Not open to contradiction: The center of a culture tends to defend its values and to place negative sanctions upon people who question them. White culture is antagonistic to people of color who contradict its values, or who take espoused values of white culture and demonstrate that white culture has not lived up to them.
I remind myself that for every racist song like “five little monkeys” that is used to teach kids to count, there are hundreds, if not thousands of songs that could serve the same purpose. If what we aim is to teach kids to sing “Sol-La-Mi,” we surely can find songs that won’t bring violence and or trauma upon our students.
It is instrumental to understand these issues as “systematic,” meaning, it is less about pointing our fingers of “performative wokeness” at individual teachers teaching racists songs and more about unpacking, naming, undoing, and interrupting these systems. Critical Race Theory (CRT) positions racism as baked into the fabric and system of American society. CRT challenges us to view not past but beyond the individual racist and look at racism as an institution that is pervasive in the dominant culture; whiteness. CRT pushes us to analyze power structures, white privilege and white supremacy, that perpetuate marginalization of people of color. Moreover, CRT rejects the notions of neutrality and color blindness, when it comes to everything, from curriculum and teaching in our case, to laws. You can learn more about CRT here.
Whiteness thrives on the erasure of painful and violent histories and on revising the histories to tell “clean up,” white-washed stories. Whiteness also thrives on telling other people’s stories, rather than our own (though through the White lens). It is common for music educators to teach songs
a) just because they are “great” songs,
b) because those are the songs we’ve been taught and
c) because they are “part of the tradition of great American songs” and kids should learn them.
Judith Katz speaks this as “Background”.
“The culture itself is not a point of discussion, focus, or examination. Rather, things different from the culture become the objects of attention. White people, for instance, overwhelmingly concentrate on discussing and studying other racial groups. Whiteness and white people as a racial group are not discussed or studied. Taboos are present in white culture against bringing the discussion and study of whiteness into the foreground.” (Katz, 1978)
Some of the worries/fears this post highlighted was that “if we don’t teach this history, then how will the kids know about racism?”
Though such concerns might be coming from a place of inquiry, they don’t account for the trauma and violence that learning racist songs can bring upon a student of color. This is even more problematic when it is White teachers who advocate this, as if the music classroom is the one and only place where kids will ever learn about racism. I argue that our students of color are born knowing about it, and even in the early grades have already experienced it firsthand. I also have a hard time believing that teachers arguing this point as for the validity to teach a racist nursery rhyme. Truthfully, how many teachers are using “Eeny Meeny Miny Moe” in the early elementary grades to teach 1st graders or kindergartners that actually the word tiger wasn’t the original word, and thus the sentence “catch a T(N)ig(G)er by his toe” actually means catch a Black man so there can be a lynching. I dare to bet that almost nobody. Even if a few did, why? At what cost and whose cost? Most importantly: Why do this?
I am not advocating we erase this song from U.S. American culture. To the contrary, I am reminding us all that they exist and that they are dangerous. Just like confederate statues don’t belong in city streets where they are constant reminders of such violence, and especially violence toward Black folks, racist songs don’t have any room or business in our classrooms as repertoire items. If what we want to do is to teach the racist history of a song like “five little monkeys,” then we can teach the racist history behind the song without making our students learn to count by chanting the song. If we are looking for a nursery rhyme to teach our students how to count, AND if we know that our song choice is racist, then we must change songs. Remember: “Do No Harm.” We don’t actually have to use materials that traumatize our students, and that are oppressive to them because of our own comfort. The onus is on us to go out of our way to learn better materials and unlearn bad material. Hitchcock & Flint write about this as: “The way everyone does it.”
“The way everyone does it: Cultures will only permit one set of values, rather than competing sets. Part of the function of culture is to let everyone interact through some shared basis of meaning and understanding. Within a culture, ‘everybody’ does tend to do things the same way—to use the same language, celebrate the same events, etc. In white culture this is sometimes expressed as a belief that people of color must automatically know how ‘people’ do things, i.e. how white people do things.”
I recognize that we teach racist songs because those are the songs that are suggested in the books we buy on Teachers Pay Teachers or in our books on Amazon. It is the comfortable thing to do. We already know these songs. Yet, we can do better. We must do the work to first be “not racists,” preferably, becoming “anti-racists.” We do this with action. Being a nonracist requires nothing (granted we don’t teach racist songs to begin with). Becoming an anti-racist, involves taking action steps. Not a single White music educator on the thread of more than one hundred teachers offered to do any labor toward creating a database of problematic songs, or even researching ones. I did not see a White teacher stepping up and saying: “I volunteer to make a list of songs,” or “Here is a spreadsheet I made with the background information for how this song is indeed not racist.” I wonder what kind of list we would have now with over 300 hundred songs collectively researched instead of a Facebook thread of over 300 hundred comments of White folks disagreeing with teachers of color on whether or not these (and other) songs are racist. I wonder what kind of lists we could have that are “anti-racist nursery rhymes” instead of hundreds of posts made in White Fragility space.
I originally screenshot the whole conversation and copy/pasted quotes that I found telling/problematic with the intention of including them here as “vignettes.” As I finish writing this article and listen to my emotions and brain, I realize they don’t belong here. If folks want to read the thread, the thread is hyperlinked at the top of the post. What I think is the point I try to convey with this post, is that as a field and as a system, the field of music education is at best “not racist” and at worst “racist.” I deeply believe it is time for us to do the work of transforming, and becoming anti-racists, through thought + action + reflection.
Here is a spreadsheet of “CrowdSourced Anti-Racist Songs” I created. Feel free to use it, and spread it as much as possible.
I conclude with the yearning for the kind of self/community reflection that we as White music educators have to do the work of being more anti-racist and less racist. We must fix what our teachers got wrong so that our students don’t have to fix as much and we can focus on teaching. We must break the cycle of racist curriculum. If we don’t do it, the labor will have to be on people of color. White people created the social construct we call racism, and we must do the work of abolishing it.
The Liberation Drum Circles day-long learning experience led by Martin Urbach took place Saturday, November 9 from 9:15 AM – 3:45 PM at the 2019 NAfME National Conference. Register for the 2022 NAfME National Conference.
About the author:
Drummer / Percussionist Martin (pronounced mar-TEEN) Urbach is a Latino Immigrant, education activist and advocate for young people. His work in the classroom is based on facilitating liberated spaces for young people to fall in love with music and to promote social justice through music making. He holds a BA in jazz performance from the University of New Orleans, a MA in jazz arts from the Manhattan School of Music, an Advanced Certificate in Music Education from Brooklyn College and is currently a doctoral candidate in music education at Teachers College, Columbia University. He teaches music, critical consciousness and activism at Harvest Collegiate High School in New York City and plays drums in a punk band named Sheer Curtains.
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