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  • Writer's pictureBrian Gellerstein

We Cannot Go Back to Normal

Brian Gellerstein

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

As the 2021–2022 school year begins, we are positioned at a particularly unique point in our history. This is a moment in which all have experienced the effects of COVID-19 across local, national, and international landscapes. As school buildings around the U.S. closed and remote learning became a reality for students and teachers nationwide, many of us awaited the moment when teaching and learning would get back to normal. I ask you to consider that a return to normal may cause harm to many of the students we teach.

After countless remote classes in which music instruction was a faint whisper of what we hoped it to be, our need to be making music in-person with students is undeniable. So, what’s the problem? Why should we push back against normal? Why should we abandon what has worked for so long in music education? I’ll tell you why. We should resist the urge for normalcy because COVID-19 was not the only widespread problem facing our society over the last two school years; there has been a coinciding pandemic—White supremacy.

White supremacy can be a scary term because when many of us think of it, we envision explicitly racist people who want to, quite literally, erase all non-White peoples. While this imagery unmistakably characterizes White supremacists as people who actively pursue the privileging of White peoples at the expense of all others, it does little to describe how it works; in fact, it often makes discussions around White supremacy less likely to occur. So, let’s be clear; White supremacy is a political, social, and/or economic system that structurally privileges White peoples, as well as White Eurocentric linguistics, cultural values, norms, and traditions (Gellerstein 2021; Mills 1997). Put simply, White supremacy is a systemic issue, and it operates regardless of whether we see it, accept it, or participate in it. Imagine if while you sleep tonight every explicitly racist person was transformed into an anti-racist activist. Fantastic, right? If this fantasy were to occur, White supremacy would still be deeply rooted because all the interconnected systems that have developed over centuries would still be operating. Although, if we examine these systems, we can begin to understand the privileges and disadvantages that result from their existence. Below, I will share three ways that such embedded systems of White supremacy have become increasingly visible throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

One of the most pressing systemic injustices made visible throughout the pandemic concerns the inequitable differences in the morbidity and mortality rates amongst different populations of U.S. citizens. COVID-19 has exposed the contrasting health outcomes for marginalized communities through its disproportionate devastation in Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities, when compared with White populations (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2020; Chastain et al. 2020; Wilder 2021). Consequently, when we think about the students we teach, those who are not White are four or five times more likely to have been personally impacted by the virus than their White peers. Such grave inequities serve as concrete examples of the broad context within which many students we teach exist. They result from complex and interrelated systems of health care, housing, education, occupations, and discrimination that affect the health inequities of Black and Brown families across the country.

In terms of public-schooling, the pandemic contributed to revealing symptoms and outcomes of White supremacy that were previously unseen by those unfamiliar with inadequately funded school settings (Gellerstein 2021). This is particularly relevant when considering the technological inequities that exist between privileged and under-resourced schools and districts (Darmawaskita and McDaniel 2021). The dependance upon reliable technology to allow for remote instruction highlighted the sorts of disparities prevalent in schools and districts that have been historically under-resourced. When the pandemic forced teaching and learning to move online, decades of inequitable school funding and resource allotment became increasingly visible.

Perhaps the most powerful arguments against systems of White supremacy in the U.S. have been made visible through the historic Black Lives Matter protests that became unavoidable since the May 25, 2020, murder of George Perry Floyd Jr. by a White Minneapolis police officer, who knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes. Within the context of mounting COVID-19 deaths, the world witnessed this murder of a Black American at the hands of law enforcement. Just over two months earlier, as the U.S. was beginning its sweeping shutdowns, a Black woman named Breonna Taylor was killed by police officers during a mishandled raid on her apartment in Louisville, Kentucky (Oppel Jr., Bryson Taylor, and Bogel-Burroughs 2020). These two killings are far from isolated and represent a history of a system of law enforcement that has continued to unlawfully erase Black lives dating back to the arrival of the first enslaved people in Jamestown, VA (Davis 2017). Over 400 years later, Black Americans are three times more likely to be killed by police then their White neighbors, and despite accounting for 13% of the U.S. population, 28% of all people killed by police in 2020 were Black (Mapping Police Violence 2020).

You may be wondering why this article is situated within a series dedicated to culturally responsive pedagogy (CRP). Put simply, CRP provides teachers with a framework from which to engage students as equals, with an explicit attention to their experiences and interests. Frankly, practices that position student understandings of the world equally to everyone else, including the teacher, stand in stark contrast to the historically teacher-centric strategies students often experience. Said differently, teacher norms, values, and musical preferences are not more worthy than those of their students. We must not assume that we know better.

The goal of culturally responsive teaching is for teachers to continually learn about students’ worlds through the engagement of art and music from their culture. There is no single way or definitive method for teachers to practice in culturally responsive ways, however Sheel (2021) offered a framework from which to make sense of CRP. He suggested framing instruction through three parts: a lens, a bridge, and practice. To do this, teachers must engage the worlds of their students, through the lenses of their art and culture. This continual practice of engagement and reflection allows teachers to build bridges between their own worlds and the learning within classrooms through content that is culturally relevant.

When building bridges between the teacher and student worlds there lies a danger in using students’ cultures and experiences as means to something better—this is not the bridge Sheel (2021) suggests. Bridges serve to connect worlds rather than manipulate one side into valuing the legacies of another over their own. True bridges can only exist when the teacher and their students are understood as equals. Anything else is manipulative and represents more of an off-ramp than a bridge. When the legacy of music education in the U.S. is one of Western European understandings of best (Bradley 2006; Gellerstein 2021; Gould 2012), unidirectional processes continue the cycles of White supremacist systems in music classrooms.

As we begin this school year, we are positioned at a unique point in our history—a point of opportunity. As we return to our classrooms, after a well-deserved rest, and get back to teaching fully in-person please remember that for many students and teachers, a return to normal may mean a return to a place that did not value the depth and complexities of their lives. Further, many students may be bringing an additional year and a half of pain and trauma that they have not been able to process. We must not return to normal; normal supports White supremacy; normal won’t cut it. Culturally responsive practices offer a path towards reconciling student needs and identities with music instruction.

The systems of music education in the U.S.—including PreK–12 and higher education curricula and instruction, certification processes, and professional organizations—overwhelmingly center White Eurocentric musics and position all else at the margins (Bradley 2006; Gellerstein 2021; Gould 2012). By engaging with students, through lenses into their worlds, and creating bridges between them and our own, classrooms may become environments in which critical examinations of shared spaces and traumas may allow for students to be seen (if they choose to be), or at least see themselves in classroom learning.

This practice of linking worlds within our classrooms is ongoing and requires the learning about students through engagement with the art and music of their cultures. Sheel’s (2021) framework is one approach from which to engage culturally responsive teaching. Whatever way you choose to learn about your students’ worlds, please be respectful and please never learn from a position of assumed superiority that centers your culture and marginalizes theirs.

I challenge us all to frame our teaching in a manner that recognizes within each classroom, there exists multiple centers and margins, always in dialogue and in constant flux. Western music is valuable, but it need not be the center of what we teach. While it may be at the core of your world, it should not enter the classroom at the expense of our students’ cultural and experiential values. So, sing with your students and play those instruments! And do these things with an understanding of the systems that challenge the very existence of many students. If we fearlessly recognize and confront systems of White supremacy in music education, then we can work together to dismantle the structures that have caused generations of harm within our profession. If we prioritize attention upon race, racism, White supremacy, and Black and Brown lives, then we can do the work towards ensuring that the racial and ethnic diversity within music education may move towards being representative of the communities in which we teach.


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Joeanna S. Chastain, and Henry N Young. “Racial Disproportionality in Covid Clinical

Trials.” New England Journal of Medicine, 383, no. 9 (2020). doi:

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by Margherita Antona and Constantine Stephanidis, 41-51. Basel, Switzerland:

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Davis, Angela J. 2017. “Introduction.” In Policing the Black Man: Arrest, Prosecution, and

Imprisonment, edited by Angela J. Davis, xi–xxiv. New York, NY: Pantheon Books.

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Education.” PhD diss., University of Massachusetts Boston, 2021.

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musician and the Deleuzian Refrain.” Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of

Education, 33, no. 1, (2012): 75-86.

Mapping Police Violence. “Police Violence Map,” Accessed December 31, 2020.

Mills, Charles W. 1997. The Racial Contract. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Oppel Jr., Richard A., Derrick Bryson Taylor, and Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs. “What to Know

About Breonna Taylor’s Death.” The New York Times (New York, NY), Dec. 29, 2020.

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in the United States.” Clinical Infectious Diseases, 72, no. 4, (2021): 707–709.

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