Inclusion Awareness

Inclusivity is a popular word these days. I find it a troublesome term, as it can perpetuate some unconscious biases and assumptions. The term inclusivity implies there has been an exclusivity to be addressed. The goal of inclusivity training, diversity workshops, etc. can often be summarized thus:

“We’ve tried to make our organization inclusive, why don’t _______ people come?” “We’ve tried to make _________ people feel welcome, why don’t they come back?” “What are we doing wrong?” or “Why don’t they fit in?”

Such questions are commonly asked among those who recognize that their organizations are too _______. That blank is usually filled in with ‘white’ or ‘straight’ or ‘cisgender.’

The crux of the problem is this – just who are “we” and “them”? The image that comes to mind is that of a circle. “We” have formed this circle, defined its norms and values, and are now attempting to invite “them” into the circle. There is now a door open for “them.” This model, however, has an implicit assumption that those who take a step through that door then assimilate into the “we.”

There is a fine line, or maybe a broad gray area, between participating in a group activity and assimilating into a group culture. Everyone who participates in a group activity is expected to abide by some ground rules, or nothing will be accomplished. In a community chorus, for instance, there is an expectation that disagreements about music selection aren’t going to be a topic of conversation during rehearsal. There may be some kind of process in place for a member to express disagreement, but disrupting rehearsal probably won’t be it.

To continue the analogy – what of the situation in which a singer realizes over time that all the chosen repertoire was composed by white men who lived during the Baroque period? This is appropriate in a group named The Baroque Chorus; a singer joining such a group should be prepared to sing baroque music! However, what of a chorus named The Community Chorale? What of a chorus that says nothing in its mission statement about singing exclusively baroque music?

Discomfort with this situation is beyond discomfort with a particular piece of music. Now we’re talking about who is the “we” inside the circle. If every singer but one is content with the music selection, the one who is uncomfortable may feel a sense of not being part of the “we” any longer. If this person is not white or male or both, “they” may feel resentment: “Here I go again, having to try to educate this group about why I feel alienated and left out.” Sometimes “they” might make the attempt; often “they” will leave, leaving the larger group mystified: “We’ve tried to make _________ people feel welcome, why don’t they come back?”

I like the image of inclusion awareness: a process of coming to recognize that there is a circle at all, and that there are group norms playing out that are largely invisible to those who are at the center of the circle. This process should sound familiar to those who have done soul-searching to recognize the various forms of privilege they own. Rather than envision opening a door to let “them” into the circle, it is more helpful to envision expanding the circle outward so “us” and “them” becomes a new “we.” Making overt the original norms of the circle facilitates this process.

Again using a community chorus as an example… an artistic director may come to understand that expanding the possibilities of music selection will expand representation of all kinds of communities that aren’t represented by white male Baroque composers. This is the first step toward expanding the circle. The next step would be an “Aha!” moment of understanding why this is important. This might mean the director is looking at music from a wide variety of cultures; it would mean the director has expanded their view of concert themes such that a wide variety of musical genres might be appropriate to choose from. As an example: rather than a Christmas concert, the director might start to look on a December concert as a holiday concert – this moves music selection beyond Santa Claus and Christmas, into realms that include Hannukah, Solstice, Kwaanza, and secular songs about winter.

It is a hard thing to recognize, the center of the circle. One chorus conductor (I’ll call him Joe) took that last step thus. Joe is a white man, and wanted to program a Christmas rap song into a concert. His chorus is largely white, and he was worried about cultural appropriation: is this going to offend African-American chorus or audience members, do “we” have the right to sing this song that was originally done by an African-American group, etc.?

Joe asked all the African-American chorus conductors he knew, and one and all said, “Go for it, we think this is great your chorus is going to do this.” After the concert, he received some angry and horrified emails criticizing his music selection. An African-American chorus director laughed at that and said to Joe, “Let me guess – it was white liberals who were angry and offended. Let me tell you something – it really doesn’t affect black people whether you sing that song or not.”

At that point, Joe understood better – it wasn’t his job to fix everything for everyone; that’s the viewpoint of those in the center of the circle. In expanding the circle, Joe’s job is to program excellent music and create concerts that people enjoy watching and performing. Joe’s job then becomes learning about other cultures sufficiently to know what might actually constitute cultural appropriation, or inappropriate use of music. For instance, in Orthodox Christian tradition, music that has been blessed is considered a holy part of worship; such music is not considered appropriate for use as entertainment in a concert setting. No matter how beautiful Joe might find a piece of Orthodox church music, programming it into a concert would constitute cultural appropriation if the music has been blessed to be part of a service; from its position of holiness within an Orthodox worship service, the song has been put in the position of being entertainment in a concert setting. Some who are not far along in expanding their circle might say, “We didn’t mean any harm by it. No one in the audience speaks that language anyway, so it’s okay.” This view minimizes the harm done by making the Orthodox into “they” – “we” are the only ones who matter.

Those who live in the epicenter of privilege have difficulty recognizing how it plays out in real life. As I said in an earlier blog, it’s a tailwind giving an invisible boost. It’s too easy to become defensive when privilege is coming into consciousness. However, owning privilege isn’t the same as saying we didn’t all have to work for what we have. No matter how strong a tailwind we might experience on a bike ride, we still have to pedal. No matter how far a chorus director expands the circle, including all genres and types of music – it’s still okay to sing Baroque music written by white men. Expanding the circle means everyone is welcome; no one is losing anything – “we” all gain.

Author: reidpdx

I am an honorary lesbian transman, married to a woman, singing baritone in the Portland Gay Men's Chorus. All me, all the time.

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