Promoting diversity in American classical music

by Race in the Workplace special correspondent Adina Ba

Aaron Dworkin is the founder and president of the Sphinx Organization, a national non-profit founded in 1996 to overcome the dramatic racial inequalities in the field of classical music.

Today we have the opportunity to learn about the underrepresentation of Blacks and Latinos in the field of classical music and what Aaron’s organization has accomplished in its first 10 years. Also, if you are a public school teacher, check out the last question for tips that Aaron has given to inspire your students to become nationally competitive musicians.

In your experience as a performing musician, what have you noticed about diversity in classical music/orchestras?

Nationally, less than 4% of professional orchestras are comprised of Blacks and Latinos combined. This compares to over 15% within the population (for each group, with Hispanics now growing substantially). Additionally, growing up, I found myself to be either the only one or one in less than a handful of minorities playing in any orchestra, or in any musical setting (a classroom, concert hall as an audience member, a summer program, etc). This made me question why this is the case, and why there are no composers of color typically featured on any standard program, including ones I would perform myself.

It was not until my years at the University of Michigan that I discovered the substantial volumes of works by Black (and Latino) composers, and began to focus my degrees on the study of these tremendous works. I learned that there is a wealth of repertoire by minority composers, which merited attention, but hardly received any. I performed works by William Grant Still, David Baker, Noel da Costa, Roque Cordero, and others. I then began to look at what I can do in order to make others aware of this inequality and of what already exists in terms of the repertoire.

Thus was born the concept of a national competition for young Black and Latino string musicians, who would come together each year to showcase their talents and receive educational and professional development opportunities. I wanted this to be much more than a competition, as the building of a community was a very important aspect of the idea. I also wanted to bring to the forefront this incredible repertoire, to give it visibility and recognition, with the idea that some day, the repertoire by minority composers will become standard literature.

What is The Sphinx Organization and how has it developed diversity in American orchestras?

The Sphinx Organization is a national non-profit founded in 1996 to overcome the dramatic under representation of Blacks and Latinos in the field of classical music. As a violinist, I founded the organization to help overcome the cultural stereotype of classical music, and to encourage the participation of Blacks and Latinos in the field.

In the 10 year history of the organization, Sphinx has made the following impact:
-Over 45,000 students reached around the country
-Over 2 million individuals reached per year through national broadcasts
-Over $180,000 in quality instruments provided to young minority musicians
-Over $800,000 in prizes and scholarships
-Over 140 Laureate performances reaching over 150,000 in audiences

The name Sphinx was given to the organization to represent some of the founding principles that guided its conception. The Sphinx represents the historical and geographical source for many minorities and exemplifies the power, wisdom and persistence that we hope to instill in our participants. The Sphinx also constitutes a mystery, an enigma. Music shares this puzzling aspect, as it is born from the experiences and aspirations of the composer as well as the performer. Like the Sphinx, it is up to the beholder, the listener, to interpret and appreciate from the music what is ultimately a reflection of internal emotions and spiritual experiences. Continue Reading »

As “all-American” as apple pie?

by Carmen Van Kerckhove

The other day I was watching “The Agency,” an addictive new reality show on VH1 about the agents and models who work for Wilhelmina Models. The agents were pitching a new client, Bongo Jeans, and brought a few different models to the client to be considered for a new ad campaign.

I was struck by how many times the phrase “all-American” was used. The client kept saying that they were looking for a guy and a girl, both of whom had an “all-American look.” You can pretty much imagine what kind of phenotype they meant by “all-American.” (And if you can’t imagine, you can watch the episode here.)

The show reminded me of a job I had a few years ago.

I was one of the few people of color there. After about 6 months on the job, a new guy whom we’ll call Tommy Smith, referred by another employee, joined our department. He happened to be mixed like me, also Chinese and white.

A few months after that, another position opened up, so I emailed a friend of mine to ask if he’d be interested. He declined, since he had just started a job he was excited about, but he recommended a friend of his instead. We’ll call her Claire Jones.

Claire sounded like the perfect candidate for the position and I trusted my friend’s judgment, so I immediately passed her resume onto my boss, whom we’ll call Pat.

Then the following conversation happened.

Pat: So is Claire Jones also half Chinese?

Me: What? (Couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing.)

Pat: Is Claire also half Chinese, like you and Tommy?

Me: Um… not that I know of.

Pat: Oh she’s not half Chinese?

Me: Like I said, not that I know of.

Pat: Oh so she’s an all-American girl then?

There were so many things wrong with this exchange I couldn’t even wrap my head around it. Did Pat think we were all in on a secret plot to sneak in as many down-low Asians as possible with European last names? And could she have made it any more obvious that to her, “half Chinese” and “all-American” were mutually exclusive categories?

It seems to me that “all-American,” like “inner-city,” is one of those code words that people use when they don’t want to sound racist. But with or without the euphemism, I heard Pat loud and clear.

Oh and in case you’re wondering, Claire Jones did get hired. And it turned out that she was actually a down-low Asian too: a transracially adopted Korean-American woman. Sorry, Pat. I had no idea — really. ;)

Watercooler: what are you?

by Carmen Van Kerckhove

Watercooler is the section of the blog where we share with you real-life horror stories from the frontlines of race in the workplace. :) This week, we have a story from Luke Lee:

So far, about 5 co-workers total have asked me in varying ways “what are you?” Almost all of them I answered honestly and I wasn’t that bothered by it because they, most importantly, didn’t ask immediately (you know, they actually waited to get to know me first) and they waited for some natural context of conversation.

I’ve written too many times about this and the “I like [insert race/ethnicity] [gender]” so I’m not going to rehash but today as I’m sitting there at work, one of our “clients” comes up to me and it goes like:

Guy who looked like Howard Stern: Hey, what are you?
Me: What?
Guy: Your race. Are you Filipino? You’re Filipino?
Me: No.
Guy: Japanese?
Me: No.
Guy: Chinese?
Me: No. [Guy is baffled but amused]
Guy: Mexican?
Me: No.
Guy: What?! What else is there?! [Guy is still baffled but not offended that I just won’t flat out tell him]
Me: (Shrug)
Guy: Russian? Are you Russian?
Me: No. (Asks Guy work-related service question)
Guy: ALEUT! You’re an Aleut!
Me: No.
Guy: Oh cah-maaann!!!! (laughs)
Me: (chuckle)

Please email team@raceintheworkplace.com if you’d like to send in a story, put “watercooler” in the subject line, and let us know what name we should use for you. Pseudonyms and first names are totally fine. You can read more Watercooler stories here.