Colonialism, White Supremacy, and the Logic of Exclusion of Colored Bodies in Classical Music

As I’m working on this bibliography of white supremacy and colonialism in classical music, I’ve come to a few things that has helped me understand the logic of exclusion of colored bodies in the field. Here are a few main takeaways.


1) Sources for information about Slave Orchestras are in formerly colonized countries or mémoires of colonial tourists.

A small fraction of the information about slave orchestras is in English, and almost none of that is any field traditionally tied to the typical music conservatory disciplines such as Musicology and Music Theory. Also, since academic databases for many countries outside of Europe and the US are relatively self-contained, most of those sources aren’t accessible to Euro or Anglo academic search engines.

Many of the firsthand accounts and descriptions of these slave musicians exist in the mémoires of visitors to colonized regions, many of whom were “tourists.”

Most other information exists in the form of accounting records, e.g. the trafficking and sales of slave musicians, which in most colonized regions was more profitable than selling non-musician slaves.


2) A history spanning centuries of forcing colored bodies into slave ensembles makes current calls for diversity problematic.

I’ve long argued for, or at least pointed out, how problematic calls for diversity are in classical music organizations. Since there are already a significant number of organizations that are either a) already diverse, or b) non-Eurological, then bringing colored bodies into the already large and primarily white organizations will simply reinforce the broader music ecosystem which already privileges those large and white organizations.

Knowing the long history of slave orchestras and forced assimilation of Indigenous Peoples through classical music just makes Angela Davis’ quote above all the more relevant.


3) Diversifying white classical music organizations takes the focus off already existing diversity.

We already have diversity of classical music even if we don’t necessarily have diversity in classical music. We focus far too much on the latter while missing the former. If, for example, there are already a ton of American Orchestras that regularly perform music by BIPOC, then why do we continue to center the white eurological orchestras?

Why do we need to center eurological classical music at all? This feeds into what I’m starting to call the Perpetually Foreign Music trope tied to an American Music Essentialism. Interestingly, this phenomenon seems to follow on the heels of calls for diversity so I’m thinking it’s a cyclical thing. It last happened about seven years ago.


4) Beethoven is Black is Back.

The return of the “Beethoven is Black” trope signifies how the gravity of “genius composers” overrides centering verifiably Black composers. Dr. Kira Thurman really sums that up best in this whole Twitter thread.

As I said in 2) above, namely that “bringing colored bodies into the already large and primarily white organizations will simply reinforce the broader music ecosystem which already privileges those large and white organizations,” applies here at the level of individual composers that make up the “great white canon.”


5) Unpacking Baremboim’s ethnocentrism; and white supremacist views of classical music.

Interestingly, it was in VAN Magazine (see Orientalism and White Noise) that we find a piece about both these topics.

Barenboim’s comments recounted in the Orientalism piece are actually par for the course of a significant proportion of those with a possessive investment in the supremacy of classical music. And given the history of slave orchestras and forced assimilation of Indigenous Peoples through classical music, finding out that white supremacists say “listening to the classics FORCES you to be white” shouldn’t be surprising.


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By ignoring the history of Colonialism and white supremacy in classical music, we’ve made it far too easy to normalize the absence of colored bodies in the field. We exclude aspects of the history of classical music such as the slave orchestras out by keeping the scholarship within the borders of Europe and European languages, thus separating out that history. Inclusion of the history of forced assimilation of Indigenous Peoples is kept to a minimum since that’s more a concern for the music education and we don’t really include how musicians are taught as part of the history of the field.

All that plays into how today, the classical music ecosystem is getting far more sophisticated in reinforcing colonialism and white supremacy in itself even amongst well-meaning DEI (Diveristy, Equity, Inclusion) advocates. The logic of exclusion of colored bodies in the field plays out on many different levels, and though we might eradicate it at one it just dives in deeper to replicate at another.

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