Thursday, June 30, 2016

Because rams are Satanic

I was a Riley Raider in the single-digit years of my life.  Eventually enough parents complained that naming an elementary school after pillagers and rapists was somewhat inappropriate, and we became the Riley Rams.  Parents immediately objected to that because rams are Satanic, and we then became the Riley Superstars.  Now the internet tells me that they're the Rams again.  Parents are fickle, it seems.

One of my favorite parts of being a Raider was music class.  I liked getting to sing in school, I liked getting to play with drums and xylophones and the utterly fascinating autoharp, and I just liked having a part of the day devoted to music.  My teacher, whose name I can't quite recall—Mrs. Anderson, maybe—was a tall, kindhearted white lady who I'd guess was about 40.  She walked the fine line between letting us get into our rendition of "Jimmy Crack Corn" and enjoy life, and letting us goof off so much that we devolved into Lord of the Flies chaos.  But the one rule that she strictly enforced was that everyone had to try their best to stay on pitch.  She was the music teacher, after all.  Seems reasonable.

I recall her specifically instructing us more than once that while it was okay to sing like the people on the radio at home, in her class we had to sing correctly: one pitch per syllable, except the "Gloria" in "Gloria in Excelsis Deo."  What "correctly" meant was, to bluntly approximate, "not like black people."  I didn't understand that at the time.  I didn't actually have much exposure to pop music other than rock until middle school, and given that it was the 80s, I suppose that pop music on the radio would have been pretty dominated by white people anyway.  My recollection of middle school is that it was actually rather diverse, maybe only a bit more than half white.  Middle school art class in the early 90s was probably the first time that I heard non-rock pop music for any length of time.  And then, certainly, I heard a lot of "incorrect" singing and soulful R&B voices, with two or even three pitches per syllable.  But elementary school, despite being only a few blocks away, was not like that at all.  I'd go so far as to describe it as almost all-white.  (According to the website, the staff is also exclusively white at the time I'm writing this.)

I didn't wonder until recently what kind of subtle impact those lessons might have had.  What does a white child learn when they're taught for five hundred hours across six years that the way that they hear white people sing is correct, and the way that they hear black people sing is incorrect?  (That may not be nearly as true today as it was a few decades ago, but I would argue that you could still guess a vocalist's race today with somewhat-reasonable accuracy based on their manner of singing.)  Even without my teacher ever explicitly mentioning race in the class, that seems like a lot of subtle subconscious reinforcement; our brains are good at putting together patterns like those.  And furthermore, how does it feel for the one or two black kids who already have limited exposure to people they can relate to at school?

I don't mean to call my elementary school music teacher an awful racist.  But looking back, I do think that she could have done better to help encourage her students to embrace a wider variety of musical styles, by playing genres of popular music in class that we might not have been familiar with, and allowing kids to emulate the artists that they knew and loved even if they sang in a style that she wasn't familiar enough with to teach.

Really, I suppose it's not terribly worse than an elementary school music teacher of 2016 who told their students that music produced on computers or samplers is inferior to acoustic music, which would be absurd and harmful, without bringing race into it at all.  Art classes for children can teach ideas and techniques and stimulate creativity and broaden horizons—they shouldn't be used to tell kids that the very things that excite them about art are incorrect.

That is, unless the child is starting to show an interest in country music.