November 17, 2016

Symphony Orchestras Have a Race, Class Problem

Last Friday, the Chamber Music Organization (CMO) hosted Thalea Stokes, a Ph.D. student in UChicago’s music department, to speak about the effects of race and class on the diversity of American symphonic orchestras. The event, titled “Problematizing the Intersections of Class and Race in American Symphonic Orchestras,” focused on Stokes’s experience playing in Atlanta orchestras as an aspiring black bassist, and her current research on minority representation in orchestras.

While the event was presented as a continuation of a discussion the CMO began last spring on race and class in classical music, this conversation acquired new weight following Election Day’s victory for Donald Trump. After the election results, the CMO issued a sort of clarion call on its Facebook page asking members to come and discuss diversity. “Discussing the issues of class and race are more important than ever, no matter how small of a community they might affect,” the organization wrote. “Everyone deserves a voice and everyone deserves to be heard.”

Stokes opened her presentation with some of her observations on popular stereotypes concerning racial groups and classical music.

“When you look at professional orchestras today around the country and around the world, blacks and Latinos are very much underrepresented groups,” she said. “When you talk to people, there’s a theory that goes that black and Latino people are underrepresented in symphonic orchestras because that’s not part of their culture. That they don’t do classical music.”

Stokes argued that there is a better explanation for the disparity. “I posit that that’s due more to class and not necessarily completely to race,” she said. “I won’t subscribe to the idea that classical music is not for blacks; that classical music is not for Latinos. I will never subscribe to that because I spent my entire life in classical music and in orchestras.”

To demonstrate the alienating effects of class, Stokes used an episode of the comedy-drama Atlanta to illustrate her point. The episode, “Juneteenth,” follows working-class couple Earn and Vanessa as they attend an upper-class party of one of Vanessa’s friends. Particularly poignant in the scene, as Stokes showed, was the discomfort Earn and Vanessa felt in a milieu they knew was not their own. Using this example of class-induced tension, Stokes showed just how foreign the world of classical music, with its ostensible extravagance, may be to the working class. 

Stokes added that the class dynamic is not only applicable to blacks and Hispanics, but also to whites. She argued that orchestra programs cater to children of well-to-do families that have the time and resources to support their participation. Additionally, Stokes also touched on her knowledge of the experience of Asians. While Asians may be among the more overrepresented members of symphonic orchestras, Stokes called for people not to over-generalize.  

“If you all notice, people in professional orchestras do tend to be overrepresented by Asian people, but these are East Asian people,” she said. “You don’t see as much representation by Southeastern Asians or Pacific Islanders. This kind of representation dynamic makes you wonder why it is that East Asian people are more overrepresented…. That’s another layer of discussion that needs to be had when talking about increasing representation in symphonic orchestras.”

While diversity remains a persistent issue among American symphonic orchestras, Stokes implied that outreach programs, as well as communal orchestras and quartets, are strong ways to combat the problem.

Like most problems of race and diversity, the resolution relies on education.