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  • Writer's pictureBrian Gellerstein

Scratching the Surface: Confronting White Supremacy in our Music Classrooms

Brian Gellerstein

This article was originally published in the Winter 2021 issue of the Massachusetts Music Educators Journal.

The structures of White supremacy are complex and present throughout all of public-school education. Many of us believe that music education, by its very nature, reaches everyone and cuts across all cultural understandings (Forshaw 2021; Gellerstein 2021). This myth has been heavily romanticized in the profession and is one major way we miss seeing how White supremacy endures. This narrative stretches back to music education’s 19th century roots in Boston in which school music was designed to civilize children through the teaching of a universal cultural literacy based upon moral character and “the public and social worship of God” (Mason 1844, iii). This assumed universality continues today and is based upon the values of the White, Christian teachers and students, for whom it was designed.

White supremacy is a complex system that privileges White peoples, languages, values, norms, and traditions at the expense of all others. (Gellerstein 2021; Mills 1997). It operates, often undetected, to position Whiteness as normal and all else as marginal, or worse. White supremacy is relentless, highly adaptable, and thrives when undetected. Accordingly, efforts to combat it must be equally persistent, flexible, and probing. This is indeed work and involves looking deeply within ourselves and our profession to investigate both the systems we work within and the ways that we contribute. While there are no shortcuts, blueprints, or easy answers for this work, I offer a model from which to consider embarking (see Figure 1). Understanding that White supremacy exists, recognizing how it manifests, and doing something about it are quite different yet interdependent positions. This conceptual model illustrates the active and cyclic process of confronting White supremacy within ourselves, music education, and more broadly.

Figure 1. Concept Model for Challenging White Supremacy


In the U.S., the most common strands within music education are choir, orchestra, and concert band, each with its repertoire immersed in the Western European canon (Bradley 2007, 2015; Humphreys 2016; Koza 2008; Lind and McKoy 2016). Even instruction based in popular music is frequently centered upon content and instruments associated with what is popular with White youth (Gellerstein 2021; Hess 2018).

Given Massachusetts’s storied history as the U.S. birthplace of public education (Urban and Wagoner 2014), and public music education (Birge 1966; Dwight 1880; Eliot 1841; Mark 2008; Mark and Gary 2007; Sunderman 1971), some may think the commonwealth is immune from the trappings of White supremacy; this is not the case. If we consider topics covered at music educator conferences, MMEA events mirror the same Eurocentric focus that can be seen in national symposia (Gellerstein 2021). While it is not surprising for conference workshops to favor traditional content, a focus upon dominant structures limits challenges and supports their regeneration.

Notwithstanding what has been present in NAfME and MMEA conferences, attention to what has been missing can help clarify where change is needed. The most unmistakable absence from the latest in-person MMEA and NAfME conferences concerned the lack of attention to Black students, Black teachers, and Black culture (Gellerstein 2021). In fact, there was virtually no acknowledgement of issues concerning race, racism, bias, or minoritized peoples (Gellerstein 2021). While there was a limited presence of language around culture, inclusivity, and diversity, content that broadly addresses equity without naming race is a form of color-blind racism (Bonilla-Silva 2017) in that it speaks of the all-encompassing all, while not recognizing race. In a context where race-based injustices impact so many of our students and teachers, not addressing race signals that race-based injustices are not a priority. Challenging the systems that enable these inequities is vital and it begins with exposure and naming (Hess 2017). Neglecting, or refusing, to name race opposes the exposure that must occur for music education, education, and the broader society to progress.

In consideration of the foundation upon which music education rests, it should not be a surprise that when choice is factor, music classes have continued to maintain an enrollment of primarily White students (Abril 2009; Elpus and Abril 2011; Gustafson 2009), even in schools with diverse student populations (Bradley 2007, 2015; Koza 2008). Collectively, we have much to do to address the historical and contemporary impacts that music education has had upon generations of students and teachers. Learning about and acknowledging the cultural biases that enable these inequities and injustices can be an entry point towards action.


Understanding the historical and contemporary contexts of White supremacy in music education allows us to see it in our practices, content, and broader professional world. The parameters of this article allow only a preliminary discussion of the ways White supremacy presents in music education, so this section focuses upon the areas within our most immediate control: content and practices.

If you were to audit your curricula and repertoire through a lens of White supremacy, you will likely find materials laden with assumptions of best and quality that center Eurocentric perspectives and marginalize or omit all else. While western European content certainly has a place in music classrooms, it need not be the center. As you consider materials, reflect upon where and how different musics are positioned throughout your scope and sequences as well as the purposes behind the content and repertoire you employ. What message might the arrangement send to students who do not identify with the cultural values and traditions represented? What might this be communicating to students who do identify with the content? What assumptions are ingrained within curricular choices? Does the curriculum enable students to generate culture or regenerate something else?

The teaching practices we employ are equally prone to the maintenance of White supremacy as the materials we choose and create. To be most effective, practices and content need to be considered together. If curriculum centers students but instructional practices place them on the margins, the messages students receive are confusing, at best.

Let us assume that you have fully reviewed all materials and are confident that they are culturally responsive to current students and draw upon a broad range of musical traditions. Though this is positive, if your practices position these wide-ranging topics as a means for showing students music from the Western European canon, they are manipulative. A pedagogical perspective that signals to students that they, their experiences, and their cultures are only relevant enough to act as a springboard to something better is problematic and harmful, even if generations of music teachers have done similarly before you.


Acting to challenge White supremacy can be understood as specific efforts taken to subvert its presence and this can take different forms. We know that White supremacy works best when hidden, so exposing it is an oppositional act. As White supremacy has been present within music education since its formation, acting involves rethinking the ways in which we understand our profession. It means decentering traditional content that does not represent the students with whom we work. It calls for abandoning practices that place teacher perspectives above those of students.

Though the most impactful actions against White supremacy will occur through individual understanding and recognition, I will share some actions that you can take immediately. One way that White supremacy operates is through appropriation. This can be seen when some aspects are taken from a cultural context to add exotic elements to Western music. This practice is often misunderstood through the American melting-pot metaphor; authentic cultural exchanges cannot occur within inequitable contexts. Be skeptical of the content you use in the classroom. Research the origins and the composer of the work. Honor the historical legacy and power relations between your community and that of the music. And, when in doubt, find something else.

Another strategy is to review content for materials that essentialize various groups into singular cultural identities. For example, repertoire that presumes to characterize the entire African continent as a single people, within a specific point in time, stands no chance of representing the cultural values of any group that has ever lived upon the continent. There is a plethora of music content that minimizes and exoticizes peoples from the global south through this brand of essentialization. When you come across this music, recycle it.

Challenging White supremacy within our teaching practices can be far more personal than confronting content. Recognizing that you, your experiences, and your cultural values are equal to those of each student may sound great, but it is also unsettling. This acknowledgement indicates that perhaps our work has not always honored students. It suggests that many students have not been, and are not, visible in the classroom. Once you begin to recognize the ways that White supremacy persists in content and practices, you will be able to deconstruct what and how you teach. This is an act of transformation—for you and your students.


Understanding the context of White supremacy in music education prepares us to recognize the ways it shows up in what we do. Once we see it, we can take action to challenge the inequities in our own work. Then, in solidarity with others, we can confront the larger systemic frameworks. Challenging a complex system that is bigger than us and bigger than music education is daunting. But we each have power within our spheres and together we can bring substantial change to our profession. To do this, it is crucial that we acknowledge that music education needs to change and should continue to change in perpetuity. This ongoing transformation encompasses the things we have individual control over and the things that need to be opposed together.

There are genuine challenges to rethinking content and practices. Most significant is that rethinking what we have been taught and what we have always done can be unnerving. This cognitive dissonance—the friction between misaligned beliefs and behaviors—has the potential to fuel or hinder the work. When there is so much within the profession that reaffirms Eurocentric methods and content, it may seem easier to leave this work to others. I urge you to confront the historical and contemporary impact of our chosen profession. Acknowledging the legacy of White supremacy within music classrooms will allow us to begin to peel back the layers of whitewash that have amassed over centuries. We must engage students in recognizing their individuality and power, even if it jeopardizes what music education has been and how our jobs function. What choice do we have?


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#whitesupremacy #musiceducation #whiteness #criticalracetheory #culturallyresponsive Brian Gellerstein This article was originally published in the Fall 2021 issue of the Massachusetts Music Educators


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