Searching for Relevance

This is my discussion forum post for a course, Foundations of Social Justice Education, answering the question, What are the structural obstacles to social justice teaching in your specialty?

November 2020

White supremacy culture is present in today’s music education.* Thankfully though, the field is going through a process of change away from structural racism and toward an anti-biased education and, most importantly, grappling with the relevancy of music learning to students’ lives.  There is intransigence to change but there are hopeful signs coming from all sides including the large organizations like the National Association for Music EducatorsUniversity level music teacher preparatory programs, and from groups and individuals (myself included!) in the field along the K-12 continuum.

Personally, I have been waking up to the fact that the music curriculum materials that I use to teach are peppered  with racism and bias. The core of the materials are centered around the American folk songbook which mirrors this country’s racist, violent, misogynist beginnings.  Quick google searches reveal the truth about much of this material.  Just a few months ago, the curriculum authors sent out an email with a list of songs from their materials with that we should no longer teach as they were “problematic”, i.e. racist, anti-gay, derogatory.

And I’ve been part of the problem, too. I am embarrassed to admit that I taught the song game ‘Jump Jim Joe’ to thousands of young children over the years. When I finally lifted the lid and looked a little closer, I found that its origin song, “Jump Jim Crow”, was a big hit in the 1820’s performed by Thomas Dartmouth at minstrel shows across the country. (Thanks to my teaching intern who woke me out of my mindless stupor regarding the song’s Jim Crow origins.)  I’ve seen this activity demonstrated at music educator workshops over the years. And it’s in a volume of dance activities by highly regarded dance educators that is on the shelf of many of my elementary general music teacher colleagues.

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.” (Urbach, 2019)

When I pivot away from my shame and fear, I look to the structure that I exist in. White supremacy culture not only has denied me a chance to see what I am steeped in, but the opportunity for open discussions on race and justice with my music colleagues and ultimately guidance on how to upend the system and start building anew.

Until there is large-scale change, there is important work to be done on the ground at my feet. No longer can I teach a song out of context.  No longer can I teach a song just because it’s always been done, or it’s in the K-6 General Music Educators’ canon (or in the district-approved curriculum) or because it was taught to me.  If I choose a song, I must place it with its history, with its people, and understand the purpose of the music in relation to the socio-political environment. And teach that. I am a music teacher, but I must teach history, too.

I must take care not to fall into ascribing Western European values or standards to the music and lose the depth of the history and power of the music. I must be mindful of cultural appropriation and avoid demeaning and exploiting peoples and their musics.  As I learn and teach about the background of the composer, the culture and the piece, do I know if consent given for people outside of the culture to perform the song? Is there a culture-bearer or expert in that cultural tradition who might share their expertise with me and my students? Do I use an appropriate pedagogical approach and teaching/learning modalities for the music (e.g., avoid teaching a South African drumming pattern using European standard music notation)?  As I am modeling respect, cultural appreciation and curiosity, can my students show their understanding of the people behind the music, what the music means and its function? Can I allow my students to hear the music as it was performed before it was mangled by European tones, rhythms and exact notes? And if my students are to perform the music, can we maintain the musical intentionality and idiomatic nuances?

Examining and reforming the ‘canon’ is just part of the change that needs to occur in music education. Thankfully there are many who are on the path that I can learn from.  I know I will make mistakes along the way, but this is the way forward to create an anti-racist, anti-biased music pedagogy and a welcoming, life-affirming space for all students to learn and grow.


Campbell, P.S., Myers, D., & Sarath, E. (2014) Transforming Music Study from Its Foundations: A Manifesto for Progressive Change in the Undergraduate Preparation of Music Majors: Report of the Task Force on the Undergraduate Music Major. The College Music Society.

Cooper, M. (2016, May 12)  Music Education Group’s Leader Departs After Remarks on Diversity. The New York Times.

Urbach, M. (2019, August 19). “You Might Be Left With Silence When You’re Done”; The White Fear of Taking Racist Songs Out of Music Education. Medium.


*  Read Music Theory and the White Racial Frame by Philip  A. Ewell who is featured in Adam’s Neely’s video on White supremacy and music theory (“the harmonic stylings of 18th century European musicans”).  Watch it here.

Ewell, P. (2020) Music Theory and the White Racial Frame.  Music Theory Online, 26(2). Society for Music Theory.


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