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Some thoughts on cultural humility

I have been struggling to write a blog post for Agrigento in response to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests around the world. This has felt like an impossible task. As I sit at my desk, in my office in the backyard of our bungalow in the leafy suburbs of Melbourne, Australia, I wonder what I can possibly add to this conversation?

This home sits on the unceded lands of the people of the Woi wurrung language group of the eastern Kulin Nations. In our backyard, the fruit trees and vegetables grow in earth that I consider was stolen.

Positioning myself here on this land is not easy. I am the second-generation on my father’s side to be born in Australia (both his parents were born in Ireland). I have a mix of English, Dutch (via South Africa) and Italian on my mother’s side. Drawing on settler colonial language, I am a white settler.

I have been educated within independent (private) schools and universities. I have been trained in Western classical music. As an arts manager, I have been employed by symphony orchestras, chamber orchestras and conservatoire. Within these privileged white spaces, I have worked in publicity, marketing, artist management, community engagement, outreach and education. I have also worked within a sector characterised by inequity – disability – and have contributed in small ways to community music through my involvement in the Scottish diaspora fiddle and folk music community here in Australia.

Over the last month, I have been reading Juliet Hess’s book Music Education for Social Change: Constructing an Activist Music Education (2019, Routledge). Amidst the important suggestions contained within this book, Juliet calls on music practitioners and educators to work against the centering of Western classical music.

This idea of working against the centering of Western classical music has been playing around in my mind as I consider my actions in the context of my own positionality and those with whom I have worked. How can I work against centering Western classical music? Doesn’t my very presence centre Western classical music?

This fraught line of thought causes me to reflect on how I have accepted that my sound as a cellist bears the imprint of my classical training. Despite a decade of involvement in folk music (another problematic term), I have been unable to relinquish the expectations and constraints of this heritage: and my own doctoral research offers some evidence of the impossibility of escape.

Is my silence an option?

I sense that I am not alone as I struggle with this force that grips my heart, hands and mind. However, the option not to say something is a manifestation of privilege.

As writer Jason Reynolds explains in The Difference Between Being Not Racist and Being Antiracist, action is the difference between being not racist (failing to act) and antiracist (choosing to act). And at this point in time, being not racist is not good enough. In the same video, poet-activist, Sonya Renee Taylor, names the inescapable fact of racism.

If you grew up in a house that spoke French, and you as a baby just started laying in your crib listening to people speak French over you, you wouldn’t have to do anything to start gaining a proficiency in the French language. You would just speak it, because that’s what’s being spoken around you. Our society speaks racism. It has spoken racism since we were born. Of course, you are racist. Of course. The idea that somehow this blanket of ideas has fallen on everyone’s head except yours is magical thinking, and it’s useless.

Sonya Renee Taylor, The Difference Between Being Not Racist and Being Antiracist, CBS News, 25 June 2020

I don’t believe that the solution is to force myself into exile. Nor should we banish Western classical music. But I believe that I am right to question its dominance as a tool of social change. As musician, I am right to try to resist my urge to measure myself (and others) by my success or, more often, failure to comply with the hierarchy of aesthetic value and musical standards that dominates the idealised institution of Western classical music.

Following the lead of scholars and practitioners in Latin America, I need to conceive my own horizontal relationship with the different musical systems, genres, forms, traditions and, most importantly, peoples with whom I engage as musician and researcher. And I need to embrace this work with the same joy that I welcome each new tune that finds its way into my head and under my fingers, recognising where it comes from, and acknowledging who I am.

If silence isn’t an option, what actions can I take?

Over the past weeks, the International Society for Music Education’s Community Music Activity (CMA) has been meeting online. The CMA Commissioners have guided this diverse international community of practitioners toward conversations in response to BLM.

It’s worth listening to the panel conversation convened by Deanna Yerichuk, and titled “Reciprocity in Community Music: Practicing Cultural Humility” (here is the link to the YouTube video). Around 9:05 minutes into the conversation, Deanna introduces the concept of cultural humility, describing it as

an instruction for white folks, in terms of how to we make sure we are keeping ourselves accountable: How do we reflect and really think about power and privilege? How do we think not only of our own personal relationships but, also, how do we fight to mitigate the systems that structure injustice, particularly with colonised [communities], with black communities, with Indigenous communities? So, cultural humility, I feel, means something to a specific group of people and is speaking to a specific group of people.

Deanna Yerichuk, Reciprocity in Community Music: Practicing Cultural Humility, 5 July 2020

As part of her presentation, Deanna references an article by social work educators, Marcie Fisher-Borne, Jessie Montana Cain and Suzanne L. Martin (2015). The article includes a set of individual and organisational questions to assess cultural humility. While framed for social workers, the questions might be transferred to practitioners in music as social action.

Fisher-Borne, M., Cain, J.M., & Martin, S.L. (2015), p. 176.

Reflecting on assessing cultural humility in my own practice: A Personal Case Study

In 2016-17, I managed an El Sistema inspired program delivered by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. I was employed to help the program transition from a single to multi-school program. This was a troublesome experience that left me with a lingering sense of discomfort. This discomfort has returned as I reflect on Fisher-Borne, Cain and Martin’s questions to assess cultural humility.

I feel I should have done more to address power imbalances. It’s not that I did nothing. For example, at an institutional level, I questioned whether it was necessary to attach the El Sistema label to the program, particularly given there was no formal relationship in place. I tried to appoint teaching artists with diverse music making practices. At an individual level, I supported the lead teaching artists to guide the teaching artist team toward more culturally responsive, creative and aural-based pedagogies. These and other efforts (successful and unsuccessful), however, constituted little more than tinkering. Any change that would address power imbalances was, arguably, impossible. The orchestra’s objective for this project was not one aimed toward naming colonisation, white supremacy or racism.

I have put this experience into words in a journal article that I submitted for publication in 2018. I did so in the knowledge that if read by any of the teaching artists with whom I had worked, it might unsettle them. It might cause discomfort or even distress. I also knew that, in writing the piece, I risked jeopardising any future relationship with the orchestra’s management. These consequences have never been tested, as the article remains unpublished.

I did find some resolution to my discomfort in writing the article. The writing process was a reflective and self-critical one in which I shared my own deeply troubled feelings about my role and (in)actions while working for the program. I placed these feelings within the context of questions of cultural power and the ways in which the label of disadvantage is imposed upon individuals and communities, thereby reinforcing mechanisms of inequality.

While the article might be considered a small action of cultural humility, it’s not enough. But by sharing it here I might be embravened to act with more courage in future. Using Jason Reynold’s baseball analogy, perhaps next time I will “risk the strike.”

Cultural Humility is attributed to Tervalon and Murray-García (1998) involves committing to ongoing relationships that require “humility as individuals continually engage in self-reflection and self-critique” (p. 118), including being aware to power imbalances that exist within the dynamics of these relationships.

Tervalon, M., & Murray-García, J. (1998)

Fisher-Borne, M., Cain, J.M., & Martin, S.L. (2015) From Mastery to accountability: Cultural humility as an alternative to cultural competence, Social Work Education, 34:2, 165-181.

Tervalon, M., & Murray-García, J. (1998). Cultural humility versus cultural competence: A critical distinction in defining physician training outcomes in multicultural education. Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved, 9, 117–125.

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