Thursday, December 1, 2016

Colloquy: Race, Ethnicity and the Profession (Part 4 of 4)

[Ed. Note: The following paper was presented by Ellie Hisama of Columbia University as part of the special session on "Race, Ethnicity, and the Profession" at the AMS Meeting in Vancouver, British Columbia.  It is the third of three papers that form Musicology Now's first "Colloquy."  An introduction to the Colloquy can be found here, as well as links to the other papers.]

On Race/Ethnicity in the Profession

As someone who has worked for over two decades to foster diversity and inclusion in and across three music professional societies—the American Musicological Society [AMS], the Society for Music Theory [SMT], and the Society for American Music [SAM], I was pleased to read the newly established Statement of Fair Practice and Representation in the American Musicological Society, approved by the Board of Directors in June 2016. 
The statement reads:
The AMS recognizes that an active commitment to fair representation and opportunity across all demographic sectors of its membership is integral to its mission and vital to its future within a changing social landscape. With this in mind, we have created this set of guidelines for the practical implementation by AMS committees, working groups, and individual members acting on behalf of the Society. These guidelines are meant to promote a positive working, learning, and social environment, free from prejudice and discrimination, in which the increasing diversity of the Society may develop and flourish.
Guidelines. It is important that those serving on committees and active in leadership of working groups engage thoughtfully with how best to ensure fair representation of the interests of the membership, be aware of their biases, and take steps to counter them through open and thoughtful discussion. Members’ actions should be guided by principles of equality and diversity with respect to such matters as:
    • Academic rank, including junior, senior, and contingent faculty
    • Age
    • Area of specialization
    • Disability
    • Economic status
    • Employment status, such as full-time, part-time, retired, unemployed, type of institution, and academic and non-academic affiliation
    • Gender identity
    • Nationality
    • Race and ethnicity
    • Regional distribution
    • Religion and belief
    • Sexual orientation
Issues of fairness and representation must be an integral part of the deliberations of every AMS group, whether standing and ad hoc committees, regional chapters, or study groups. These matters should be explicitly addressed during the nominations process for committees and in the composition of all committees and groups, as well as in the execution of a committee’s duties and during the business meetings of chapters and study groups. To this end all groups are encouraged to designate a member whose role will be to raise issues of fairness and representation for discussion. 
It’s high time.
A few brief recollections. As an Asian American woman working in a field hardly dominated by Asian or Asian American women, I have been conflated with other Asian women music scholars on occasions too numerous to count. Someone at an annual meeting might start talking to us about work undertaken by one of our colleagues as if we are the author, or cheerfully inquire about a spouse or partner of another Asian woman. What continues to puzzle me is how we can be mixed up repeatedly when there are so few of us in the field. One of the most memorable emails I’ve ever opened began, “Dear Judy,” typed by a senior colleague who had greeted me as “Judy” in the women’s restroom the previous summer, apparently mixing me up with musicologist Judy Tsou. 
After presenting at a joint meeting of the AMS and SMT over twenty years ago at the SMT’s Committee on the Status of Women session as its only graduate student member, I presented a summary of all the faculty with whom I had studied as an undergraduate and graduate student in six institutions broken down by gender and race. I observed that over 95% of my professors were white, and commented that I wished that I had had the opportunity to study with a greater range of professors to include more people of color. I had mentors, but I had zero role models who were not white from my academic studies of music. The response from one audience member was that I had unnecessarily injected race into a meeting that should be focused on the concerns of women (presumably she meant white women, and presumably she was unaware of the importance of intersectional thinking that takes into account a cluster of identifications including race and ethnicity). Another audience member, white and male, addressed the chair of the committee instead of me directly, charging that “the person sitting to your left wants to supplant people like me with people like her!” which I had never suggested.
In the mid-1990s, in my very first interview for a tenure-track job, while walking from lunch back to the music building, I was told by a senior member of the search committee that a regular practice of the faculty was to get together for a potluck dinner. He then asked me if I could make sushi. No one else heard him ask me this question. I can’t remember what I said. In my second interview for a tenure-track job a few months later, time was scheduled for me to meet by myself with the graduate students. One of the students handed me a racist right-wing pamphlet. I was shaken, but said nothing to him or to my faculty hosts.
As a member of the Alvin H. Johnson AMS 50 Dissertation Fellowships committee several years ago, I observed that the awardees of the AMS 50, that year and reaching back many years, were nearly always white. When I brought up the issue at our full committee meeting about the importance of considering a diversity of dissertation topics and awardees across race and ethnicity in our subcommittee discussions, I was firmly told that the committee’s charge was to focus on “quality,” not diversity. There was no discussion about how “quality” can be measured in different ways by different readers; how some topics might be instantly discarded by those who don’t recognize the importance of the work—or who simply don’t understand the work. We moved on.
Categorization by race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality continue to drive perceptions powerfully, and perhaps primarily in many circumstances.  We continue to fit people into boxes.
Let’s unbox.
On reflecting on my own experience as a graduate student and, PhD in hand, as a member of committees such as the AMS 50 that help define a career, I’d like to offer the following suggestions:
(1) That the Permanent Committee on Race, Ethnicity, and the Profession work hand in hand with the Committee on Career-Related Issues to assist faculty who are members of search committees, PhDs, and graduate students who are seeking jobs to help illuminate how race/ethnicity might be brought into employment considerations, consciously or unconsciously; how to handle inappropriate and potentially illegal remarks and questions; and how to not only diversify applicant pools but to have diversity in hiring.
(2) That the Permanent Committee work closely with the Committee on Women and Gender to address issues specifically affecting women of color in the profession.
(3) That the Permanent Committee work with all of the award committees to help them determine fair and inclusive procedures for selecting awardees that take into account diversity of topics and nominees.
(4) That with the Committee on the History of the Society, the Permanent Committee undertake a top to bottom study of the history of who has received fellowships, awards, and honorary and corresponding membership; served as President, and on the Council, the Board of Directors, committees and Journal of the American Musicological Society (JAMS) editorial board; submitted and published articles and reviews in JAMS; edited JAMS, the AMS Newsletter, and Musicology Now; and so forth, following the AMS’s “active commitment to fair representation and opportunity across all demographic sectors.” This data should be published on the AMS website and should be regularly updated.
I wish to thank the members of the Planning Committee—Naomi André, Mark Burford, Bonnie Gordon, Mark Katz, Tammy Kernodle, Alejandro Madrid, and Steve Swayne—and of course Judy Tsou and George E. Lewis for their excellent stewardship. I greatly look forward to the work of the Permanent Committee.

Ellie M. Hisama is Professor of Music at Columbia University, a member of the Executive Committee of Columbia’s Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality, and a member of the Governing Board of Columbia’s Society of Fellows in the Humanities. Her publications include Gendering Musical Modernism: The Music of Ruth Crawford, Marion Bauer, and Miriam Gideon (Cambridge University Press, 2001), the article “Life Outside the Canon? A Walk on the Wild Side” and an article on composer/improviser/pianist/vocalist/ Julius Eastman. She is Founding Editor of the Journal of the Society for American Music and was Editor in Chief of Women and Music: A Journal of Gender and Culture.


  1. So many excellent points, and so many infuriating experiences. Thank you for sharing. I particularly like this passage:

    "There was no discussion about how “quality” can be measured in different ways by different readers; how some topics might be instantly discarded by those who don’t recognize the importance of the work—or who simply don’t understand the work."

    I've heard that excuse so many times, and it assumes that "quality" is an objective standard. "Quality" has been determined by a narrow segment of people for so long that they assume that it IS objective because they haven't had to listen to anyone who tells them otherwise.

    As I wrote on my own blog: "[There] is a community of mostly white men who view themselves as the norm in the classical music community, with people of color, women, and liberals as outsiders. To them, it’s not even a matter of opinion; they believe it to be objective fact."

    These are harsh realities, and I'm encouraged that we're starting to face them.

  2. Thinking about the suggestions you make, the Permanent Committee on Race, Ethnicity, and the Profession might be interested in the work being done by the Big Ten Academic Alliance's Professorial Advancement Initiative (PAI): they have been creating trainings for search committees that address diversity and unconscious bias. Their work (though geared toward STEM fields, I believe) might serve as a model (or a great resource for those at Big 10 schools!). They are certainly not the only people working on such issues, but they have some well-done training videos and seem to be quite far along in the implementation phase of the program. See more here: