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Moving towards an anti-racist professional practice: Developing understanding and awareness

13th July 2020

The words below are adapted from a presentation given to Music Mark Members by Jenn Raven of Sound Connections. The presentation formed part of a discussion about how Music Education organisations and Music Educators can develop an anti-racist professional practice. With thanks to Miriam Sherwood who provided some of the inspiration and content for this presentation.


Equality, Inclusion and Diversity have been on the agenda for a long time – these are terms we’re all familiar with. But in recent weeks and months something has changed. The shift we’ve seen is that awareness of racism has increased and the voices of people experiencing it have cut through. People are perhaps listening in a way they haven’t before. The issues being campaigned about are by no means new but as a result of the tragic murder of George Floyd and many others, we are now in a place where there’s more readiness to name racial injustice, to address that structural racism is very real, and to commit to taking action.

At Sound Connections this shift happened a couple of years ago, when we started to learn that in order to achieve true diversity and inclusion, we needed to tackle difficult issues head on, and in particular racism needed to be acknowledged and dismantled.

We don’t have all the answers, we are very much on our own journey with this, and I am by no means an expert – but I want to share some of the things I’ve found most powerful. At Sound Connections we’ve explored this through examining what’s happening within the structure and culture of our organisation, in our workforce and in our programmes. We’ve also had the benefit of learning through hosting the Music and Social Justice Network.

I think for me personally, the starting point was learning: learning what racism actually is, what our history actually is, learning about the microaggressions that People of Colour experience in daily life, recognising my privilege as a white person, being more self-critical and self-aware. It’s also been about unlearning: unlearning unconscious biases and the ways in which we’ve been conditioned to see the world from a very white perspective.

Based on the journey I’ve been on so far I’m going to talk you through a few key concepts. I know some of you will already have a good understanding of these things, but I hope they help you navigate through some of the thoughts and feelings you might have.

The first thing is a note about the terminology I’m using here. BAME is a very imperfect term familiar to us from policy and the media; we need to challenge our use of language like this and be conscious about the words we choose to use. People of Colour is a term some colleagues have explained is their preferred language because it is historically linked to the social justice movement and has been claimed by Black people rather than being imposed. Others are critical or uncomfortable with this and prefer to use ‘Black or Brown’. As a team, we try to continually critique and renew our use of language, and consider the depth, complexity and nuance that sits behind a single acronym. You can read more about problematic terminology and it’s history and connotations here.

Next is systemic or structural racism, which refers to how ideas of white superiority are embedded within social systems: so, it’s about the big picture of how society operates, rather than being about individuals or one-on-one interactions. Systemic racism means that we are part of and born into a racist system, and white people benefit from its outcomes, unwittingly even when we as individuals are not actively or explicitly racist. It’s also about the fact that our country is predicated on colonial history and slavery. This is also why it’s so important to talk about decolonisation – people like Nate Holder are doing brilliant work around this in music education.

It’s because of structural, systemic racism that it’s not enough to passively ‘not be’ racist – in taking this stance we continue to benefit from a racist system and once we know it exists we have a moral, human responsibility to challenge it.

Privilege, specifically white privilege is a set of unearned benefits given to people who fit into a specific social group. White people are born with particular privileges because of the colour of their skin. At Sound Connections we created a self-reflective exercise (available for use below) to help people consider what privilege they do or don’t hold based on their social background, and how this influences the way we behave towards others.

Unconscious bias is the fact that over time through messages constantly passed to us from media, politicians etc we stereotype people based on how they look, and this influences how we interact with them: who we recruit, which children we are more likely to punish, what assumptions we make about someone’s intelligence, and which types of music we ascribe most value to.

White fragility can be one of the hardest, but most important, things to talk about. The definition is discomfort and defensiveness on the part of a white person when confronted by information about racial inequality and injustice.

Robin DiAngelo explains the patterns of white fragility in her book on the subject. These patterns of behaviour include:

  • Lack of understanding about what racism actually is and its complexity
  • Seeing ourselves as individuals, exempt from the forces of systemic racism
  • Failure to understand that we bring our social group’s history with us, that history matters
  • Assuming everyone is having or can have our experience – e.g. anyone can succeed in the same way just by working hard
  • Lack of racial humility, and unwillingness to listen
  • Dismissing what we don’t understand or what we have no direct experience of
  • Lack of authentic interest in the perspectives of People of Colour
  • Wanting to jump over the hard, personal work of understanding racism and rushing to “solutions”
  • Guilt that paralyses or allows inaction
  • A focus on intentions over impact
  • Defensiveness about any suggestion that we are connected to racism

These patterns are helpful for white people to see how our socialisation and our privilege might be manifesting, even if we are not conscious of it.

Finally, intersectionality is the fact that there are many types of oppression which intersect with one another, such as sexism, ableism etc – they’re not distinct separate categories.

All of these things I have described play out in music and music education, for example:

  • The types of music we place most value on, and see as being superior
  • What gets included and prioritised in the curriculum and in exam boards
  • Who enters and thrives in the workforce
  • What pedagogy we use

Unpicking pre-existing patterns of behaviour and structural inequalities is challenging – it does feel uncomfortable, and it needs to, it’s really important that we embrace that discomfort. The thing that I keep coming back to as being at the heart of anti-racist work is self-reflection, learning and listening.

Lastly, white people must remember that as we go through a process of learning, and as we engage in challenging discussions as a sector, it can be painful and exhausting for People of Colour and others who experience oppression daily. If we feel able to switch off or step away from difficult feelings around racism, this is as a result of our privilege – People of Colour don’t have this luxury. We must move forward with this in mind, with care, understanding and commitment to change.

Ultimately, we in the Music Education sector must work together to dismantle the injustice that impacts upon so many of the children we work with.

There are additional anti-racism resources available on the Music Mark website:


Furthermore, on the Sound Connections website you can access: