Implicit Bias in Classical Music
Black conductors face constant implicit racial bias.
We see the world that we come prepared to see, even though those preparations are taking place unconsciously.¹
Implicit bias should be the next #MeToo movement.
Classical music’s #MeToo movement caught fire with the help of white media. The race part of implicit bias makes it less sexy to report.
Sexual assault and harassment maim people. It can destroy lives, careers, intimate relationships, and one’s sense of self-worth forever.
Implicit bias kills Black people…by the minute. From police shootings to the healthcare system, it’s killing us right now.
Every seven minutes a Black person dies prematurely because of implicit bias in healthcare alone. — David R. Williams
Implicit bias leaves an aftermath of job discrimination, termination, stunted and ruined careers, and a host of stress-induced physical and psychological illnesses. It’s a terminus racial epidemic in all industries.
Classical music isn’t different.
Never has there been a black conductor of a top-10 US orchestra. Either we’re inept, or something in society needs changing.
All humans have biases.
Bias has been biding its time in an implicit world — in a place where we need not acknowledge it to ourselves or to others, even as it touches our soul and drives our behavior.²
It’s defined by social and spatial distancing, exclusion, discrimination, and white opportunity hoarding. Inequality from bias results from white-dominated industries. Because they can’t see how implicit bias creates racial barriers, they’re not motivated to stop it.³
Implicit Bias towards Black conductors
Implicit (unconscious) and explicit (conscious) anti-Black bias in classical music thrives.
Involuntary, implicit bias fills cognition gaps and drives decision-making with those unfamiliar.
When someone seems foreign or unfamiliar or unpredictable, your gut reactions prepare you to be wary. That is when out-group bias can surface instinctively.⁴
A White Philadelphia Starbucks manager’s fear caused her to have two innocent Black men arrested for sitting. After public outcry, Starbucks closed its stores for one day of implicit bias training.
The motivation for bias varies; the disadvantage to Black conductors is the same.⁵
Each season, administrators, musicians, and artist managers exclude Black conductors from subscription concerts. Perhaps they believe racial equity will increase competition, decrease their control, opportunities, and power, and compromise White superiority. In any case, audiences learn we’re inferior.
(Imagine if Black people took over classical music like jazz. Scary stuff!)
Black Excellence is no match for bias
Black excellence isn’t enough to shield Black conductors from bias.
White excellence denotes competence and admiration, while Black excellence means you’re less competent. Turns out it’s supported by science.
Prof. Jennifer Eberhardt and Hazel Markus at Stanford University studied race and the perception of qualifications between two investment teams.
The more qualified the Black team, the more negative bias they faced.
Asset allocators evaluated the highly qualified black team’s track record more negatively and labeled them less capable of “executing on strategy” than the White team with the same qualifications.⁶
Bias determines who gets to shine, who’s allowed to stand out, who is alluded for being a “disrupter,” and who is sidelined for being disruptive.⁷
Excellent Black conductors are also called arrogant, and condescending.
Science says we can’t win for losing.
Bias from Orchestra Musicians
Despite being over 12% of the US population, only 1.8% of American orchestras are African-American.⁸
Musicians may work their whole lives without experiencing Black conductors, and never realize a sense of loss. Musicians learn we lack competence, and our musicianship has no value.
Bias through suspicion, and doubt accompany guest engagements. We’re regarded as disposable tokens, hired at the grace of White administrations, not because we earned it. Musicians sometimes disrespect us with impunity.
- Physical assault
- Not playing when cued or at all
- Talking back/arguing
- Refusing correction
- Overly disgruntle/uncooperative behavior
- Lack of attention and focus
- Vocal hostility (i.e. yelling)
- Changing parts at the concert to cause confusion
- Not showing up to rehearsals on time or at all.
Administrators and artist’s managers blame us. They’re loyal to musicians and presenters; their livelihood depends on them, not us. We’re already skating on thin ice being Black.
Orchestra Administrator Bias
We cannot see what we don’t know, and we don’t know what we haven’t seen.
Orchestra administrators buy relatable non-Black artists from White agencies. That’s all they mostly see.
The programming of guest artists is mostly White. Audiences are also White. Non-Black conductors get subscription debuts at the recommendation of White tastemakers. It’s rogue hiring an out of network Black conductor to lead subscription concerts.
White conductors step-in for subscription cancelations, or get invited outright. We’re “tried out” on ethnocentric/minor programs (Martin Luther King Day, youth/education/family/4th of July). Pigeonholed, we rarely advance to serious engagements.
There’s no need for Black dollars
Racial equity and parity in programming don’t concern US administrators especially. White dollars fund orchestras. Blacks and our money aren’t necessary.
Even in times of great financial turmoil, the racial demographics of guest artists aren’t examined in urban cities.
Black conductors are role models. We could include and inspire Black urban communities to invest in their orchestras.
Instead of hiring us, administrators label Black communities underserved. Then, they set about serving mostly White subscription concerts (with a seasonal side dish of blackness for MLK day/black history month) that further alienates and patronizes Black communities.
Hiring Black conductors only for ethnocentric and minor programs is implicit racial bias. It is also racist. Racial equity in programming is needed now.
Artist Management Racial Bias
Implicit bias often begins with White artist managements. Knowledge of racial inequality is unnecessary for them. Most premiere agencies have never signed a Black conductor. They prefer to stock their rosters with relatable non-Black conductors who look the part.
Black Agents not trusted
Major Black classical music agents don’t exist. It’s 2019. Agencies seem distrustful of Black’s selling their artists. They fear the lily-white industry will be uncomfortable, not relate to them, and ultimately not buy their artist.
We live, work, play and buy from people most like ourselves. White managers share the same cultural repertoire as most presenters. Black conductors are alone in an industry that refuses to learn our cultural repertoire.
Cultural repertoires are ways of behaving among people who share a common background (social, racial, political etc.), which can be used to predict their behavior or way of thinking.
Agencies remain willfully blind to how this creates implicit racial biase in the industry.
It’s frustrating when managers present you for your 100th Martin Luther King Day/Black history month concert, with an orchestra (who’ll never hire you for a subscription ) who offers you far less than non-Black artists and refuses travel/hotel compensation.
Black managers could empathize when:
- Security stops you concert-day from entering your dressing asking “Can I help you” as if you don’t belong
- You’re told, “We don’t know how to market you” by an orchestra
- You’re offered lower fees/compensation (travel/hotel) than non-Black artists
- You’re mistreated by musicians, presenters, and orchestra managements
These experiences are racist, demoralizing and degrading. It’s added stress, wear and tear on the mind, body, and soul that no artist needs.
Sharing cultural repertoires is a luxury, making success easier. It would allow for “racial relaxation,” and the “emotional and intellectual space that people of color are not afforded as [we] move through [our] day.”⁹ Black conductors rarely have this if at all in the industry.
Tokenism protects White supremacy
Orchestras and artist managements tokenize Black conductors. It allows them to ignore their own implicit bias and racism. Tokenism allows the industry to disassociate from being racist.
Limiting Black artists to one at a time is racist. Being a token causes heightened visibility, negative stereotypes, and social isolation.¹⁰
Tokenism only normalizes whiteness. It appears to give Blacks an opportunity. In reality, it demonstrates that the real talent is mostly among Whites. Blacks are props displaying the ideal White prototype. Our presence serves the optics of anti-racism. White supremacy continues.
One rose in a cotton field doesn’t make a bouquet.
One Black in an orchestra, on a conducting roster, or on a minor concert annually isn’t racial equality. Our infrequency highlights implicit bias and racism.
Black Mentors: Where are they?
After approaching a major White conductor, his assistant told me:
If you were really somebody, he’d know about you already.
There’re no powerful international Black conductor advocates. We rely on august White mentors who don’t share our cultural narrative.
The cultural narrative is a common understanding of values, heritage, tradition and spiritual connections between people of the same culture.
When no one shares your cultural narrative, finding relatable mentors can be a challenge.
Implicit bias needs Awareness
Implicit bias and institutionalized racism, in-access to music education, lack of opportunities and role models impede Black conductor development, not potential.
Diversity as altruism never yields permanent results.
Addressing implicit bias in classical music requires awareness and reflection from White institutions. Blacks don’t decide who belongs and what is valued in society, Whites do.
To promote change, we must agree that:
- Black conductors are rare in classical music.
- Administrators rarely hire us for subscription concerts
- Implicit bias and racism creates a preference for non-Black artists
- We’re perceived as inferior
- Managements either don’t sign or tokenize Black conductors
- Black managers would benefit the industry
- We lack Black mentors
- Not experiencing Black conductors is a cultural loss
Implicit bias and racism have silenced our voices for too long. Orchestras, make our appearance common for audiences, not a rarity. Musicians, work with us to stop forming implicit bias in our absence. White conductors mentor us just as you mentor countless non-Blacks. Artist managers, sign and develop multiple Black talents at once.
Lastly, Black conductors are rare. We’re unicorns.
We’re Black magic.
Noted conductor, educator and social justice advocate Brandon Keith Brown seeks to engineer society from the podium by decreasing the racial stigmatization of underrepresented minority classical musicians. Brown is a prizewinner and the audience favorite of the 2012 International Sir Georg Solti Competition for Conductors, and guest conducts prominent European orchestras including the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester-Berlin, Badisches Staatskapelle, Staatskapelle Weimar, members of the Vienna Philharmonic, and the Jena Philharmonie among others. Upcoming debuts include the Konzerthaus Orchestra Berlin, WDR Funkhaus Orchestra Köln, Cape Town Philharmonic, and the Bilkent Symphony Orchestra. He is a student of David Zinman, Lorin Maazel, Kurt Masur, and Gustav Meier, graduating with a master’s from Johns Hopkins University. Initially trained as a violinist, he attended the Oberlin Conservatory of Music studying under Roland and Almita Vamos.
A noted social justice advocate, Brown’s writings on race and education have been featured on The Medium and in the Berlin Tagesspiegel. He is a frequent podcast guest and speaker on the intersection of race in music and education.
For speaking request: email@example.com
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