Us and Them – Tokenism and Tourism in My Music Classroom

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I’ve been taking a class on Social Justice in Education and in a discussion thread on “Structural Obstacles’ a few colleagues were discussing the idea tokenism in staffing, i.e. schools who were superficially addressing the lack of BIPOC voices on committees or leadership positions by assigning one token Black or Brown person and calling it a day.  The idea of tokenism is something I have been thinking and reading about a lot lately, mostly in terms of curricular choices I have made over the years and how I’ve included or excluded voices in my classroom.  What is driving my conscious or unconscious choices of the musics I select for study?

“Traditional forms of multicultural education that focus on celebrating diversity rather than equity can reinforce their misunderstandings by feeding the assumption that celebrating diversity is enough—that everybody is starting on a level playing field.” (Swalwell & Gorski, 2015)

Gorski and Swalwell discuss the risk of superficially engaging in multiculturalism and diversity initiatives in “Equity Literacy for All”.  Since I began teaching, I have sought out ‘world music’, i.e. multicultural music in my music classroom.  One of my first school-wide recording projects was a CD in which I included a song from every country represented by the student body at the time.  I consulted the ELL teacher to get a list of countries and languages at my school, selected a slate of ethnic material, and allowed students to vote on the song their class would perform for the CD recording project.  The result was a CD of 25 tunes in various languages and styles, entitled “Born To Make Music”.  

Reflecting on it now, I wonder how deeply the students connected with the material I had chosen from their culture.  Did students of color see or hear themselves in the music?  And what did the White children learn about their BIPOC peers and world cultures?  I consulted reference materials to check for authenticity but did not seek out parents, community members or artists who could help teach the music and help me make sure I was not just engaging in tokenism or musical tourism.  “The trouble lies in how so many diversity initiatives avoid or whitewash serious equity issues.” (Swalwell and Gorski, 2015)  Looking back now, though we did raise money for the music program, my earnest ‘Diversity Director’ self probably did very little to help my students of color feel less marginalized. 

“What we are suggesting is that at the heart of a curriculum that is meaningfully multicultural lie principles of equity and social justice—purposeful attention to issues like racism, homophobia, sexism, and economic inequality. Without this core, what we do in the name of multiculturalism can border on exploitative: asking students and families who experience these inequalities to allow students and families who don’t experience them to grow their knowledge, while the inequalities themselves go unaddressed.”  (Swalwell and Gorski, 2015)

This brings me to the idea of euphemisms – language we engage in as educators when we attempt to address race or systemic inequalities. The Meriam Webster Dictionary defines a euphemism as a replacement for an “agreeable or inoffensive expression for one that may offend or suggest something unpleasant”.  White cultural dominance is so deeply embedded* in music education, and it is very difficult to expose the layers of structures that are preventing change toward anti-bias teaching.  It’s hard to talk about.  So we code our language and thinking, too. When I speak or think about ‘world’ music, or ‘urban’, or ‘diverse’ music, am I really just referring to something that is ‘not White’?  

From coded language comes coded action. For example, in my effort to include more Afrocentric music in my curriculum I run the risk of keeping this music at the periphery of the curriculum, treating it as exotic, not exploring beyond the superficial and engaging in a rich exploration of the musical and cultural practices.  In this way I am effectively reinforcing White cultural dominance and ideology, and my coded language (diversity, multicultural) allows me to ‘tick the box’ on equity.

“The unmasking of coded language may serve as a first step toward removing from music education “methods that uphold White racial domination through an ‘us and them’ dichotomy”. Moving beyond the “us and them” thinking indicative of cultural whiteness allows for space to integrate “other forms of knowledge, histories and cultures into the curriculum”, a primary goal of anti-racism and critical multicultural education.”  (Bradley, 2006)


* 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.

Bradley, D. (2006) “Music education, multiculturalism, and anti-racism: ‘Can we talk?” Action, Criticism, and Theory for Music Education.

Gorski, P. and K. Swalwell. (2015) Equity Literacy For All. Educational Leadership. Retrieved from

Hess, J. (2017) Equity and Music Education: Euphemisms, Terminal Naivety, and Whiteness.  Action, Criticism, and Theory for Music Education.