Accessing the Inside of the Tent: The Optics of Inclusivity in Music Education

Christopher Mena
14 min readMay 23, 2020


Image credit: Giulia Forsythe

Being a cisgender Mexican American man who also hovers around the (Q)uiet periphery of the LGBT community has caused me (almost daily) to examine many of my intersecting identities, oppressions, and privileges while navigating the overwhelmingly white world of music education. For example, as a Mexican American in academia I occupy a spot within the .2 percent of mi gente that have a graduate degree. In music education, I am part of an even rarer breed of “Hispanic” scholars that make consistent contributions to academic literature in the profession. As with many of us tucked away in this small corner, my hard fought grasp on this professional rung is often strained by the weight of imposter syndrome, the multitude of daily microagressions, and the commitment to our people that we will help get them through that ever narrowing academic door. However, as a cisgender man in this field, I am endowed with a certain amount of privilege that allows at least some of my voice to be discernable over the din of White noise…so long as I police my tone and don’t become too hungry as a I peck out of the palm of privilege. These daily negotiations have my ROM (racially occupied mind) working in overdrive as I boot up my brain for the next opportunity to make a contribution to conversations pertaining to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) being had by white scholars “in the tent.” I want to be firm, but not angry. I want to value other voices and honor their intersecting oppressions, but also have my perspective validated. Unfortunately, it is too often that I am left feeling like I have to apologize for my words rattling the fragile white veneer that covers the walls built to house my brown voice.

Yesterday, after much deliberation, I decided to follow a Facebook link posted by one of my colleagues that led to a heated conversation pertaining to the optics of having yet another all-white (or at least individuals who present as all-white) panel discussing how to diversify programing for large ensembles. Coaxed by the resounding #representationmatters post that my colleague shared, I took the bait and joined the conversation. As I approach any situation dealing with White academics I prepared to carefully measure the weight of my words and made sure to read all perspectives being shared before offering a reply. The fiery vitriol from the panelists who, admittedly are doing the good work, was sparked by the following comment from one of their fellow white colleagues: “Is this another entirely white panel interested in discussing inclusivity? How?”

As I read through the thread I was surprised at the anger and, ultimately, the unprofessionalism found in the comments. I figured that since I have at least some understanding of and professional credibility on the topic of inclusivity in music education (including publications) I would offer a response regarding the optics of the situation. Big mistake. A response that I thought would cool the coals of smoldering sentiments actually became an accelerant that resulted in a few burned bridges. I was met with a maelstrom of profanity laced attacks and mischaracterization of my comments all mixed with a good amount of whitesplaining for good measure. I was absolutely horrified…but also inspired. Inspired to write a reflection on my experience. Inspired to call attention to the white women’s tears (see Diangelo, 2018) that continue to drown the voices of brown folks in these settings. But most importantly, inspired to stand up for myself as a member of one of the most marginalized groups in music education. In this brief reflection I would like to address a few choice comments that I encountered, unpack them, and offer suggestions on how we can move forward with a common understanding of how to navigate the seemingly “moral minefield” of DEI work.

From one of the panelists:

“It only appears that the only thing that you care about is the visual optic (which you already got partially wrong in terms of race) and not the content of what is being discussed.”

“It may be more effective for you to join a conversation and help solve problems, than to remain angry and on the outside of the tent. You might be inspired by what goes on inside there when activists like us are present. You are always welcome.”

These are the two quotes that lured me into yet another day long internet exchange regarding the optics of an all-white presenting panel leading the discussion on how to be inclusive when programming concerts for band and orchestra. As a person of color who has been inundated with so many microaggressive moments while trying to navigate the unbearable whiteness of being in this profession, I must confess that I have a litmus test for whether I can take an organization’s efforts at achieving DEI within their ranks seriously. Biased, yes. But also necessary for me to not have to endure the emotional exhaustion that comes with being subjected to yet another scholar whitesplaining to me the oppression that I endure on the daily. This test is a simple and profound question that allows me to quickly assess whether a group is truly being intentional and informed in their efforts to recruit diverse participants: do they maintain visible diversity with their members? Not a Trump-peppering-the-crowd -with-paid-people of color type of visibility, but a visible diversity that provides representation of highly qualified, highly capable, and highly insightful people with black or brown skin.

Before moving on, I want to recognize that how individuals present their racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds is extremely complex and can not always be determined by the amount of melanin they were blessed with. That being said, one of the most uncomfortable moments for me as a highly “melanined” Mexican American man is walking into a room that is full of white (or white presenting) people. The first thing that I do to help assuage my anxiety is to count the number of dark faces in the crowd. It is a quick check that I can do to help me figure out which mask to put on, or how much of my Mexicanness I am allowed to show in this space. In his book “Whistling Vivaldi” Claude Steele writes about research that indicates the importance of achieving the “critical mass” of representation as a crucial component to mitigate against the effects of stereotype threat that occurs to visibly presenting POC in these types of academic settings. Because of this, the implication from the above comment that remaining angry on the outside of the tent is a personal choice is particularly damaging for people of color who present as, well, people of color. It is not “self-ghettoization” as one panelist offensively claimed. It’s just that for many of us who even get close enough to pull back the flap and peek inside the tent, we see the thousand eyes of a pale gaze staring back at us and immediately shut it. It is not that we don’t want to engage, it’s just that for us, predominantly white academic spaces are a reminder, like many storefront signs of the past, that we are not welcome.

Maintaining visible diversity is by no means diminishing the oppression that mixed-race individuals who present as white feel. The truth is that intersecting identities are complex and are further made complicated when compounded with gender. However, the fact remains, in the United States at least, that the worth of the vast majority of visibly presenting POC is inversely related to the amount of melanin in their skin. To share an historical example, this was exactly the issue that set in motion the precipitating event for the 1946 Mendez v. Westminster desegregation case. In his book “Chicano Students in the Courts,” Richard Valencia explains how Soledad Vidaurri, the aunt of the three Mexican American Mendez children who were denied admission to Westminster Elementary, was surprised that her own Mexican American children were granted admission to the school. Court testimony would later reveal that their light complexion and French last name were the determining factors that allowed them to be admitted. This line of thinking is not a vestige of extinct racist behavior, but rather a living, breathing, breeding, and perpetually negative perception of black and brown bodies. A perspective that continues to manifest itself today in such instances as the cutting of dreadlocks in wrestling matches (New Jersey in 2018), discriminatory dress codes in schools (California in 2019), and even asymmetric enforcement of uniform regulations at swim meets (Alaska in 2019). Compounded with the continued overrepresentation of certain groups in the media as criminals (read: black and brown) it becomes clear that the wild west narrative of “white cowboy =good, brown indian=bad” remains; and with far-reaching consequences. Just think of the (now repealed) stop and frisk laws in New York, the “show me your papers” law (SB 1070) in Arizona, and the myriad of other legal justifications to disproportionately target POC. Understanding how the world has condemned dark complexion is not a matter of “performative wokeness” as some individuals in this Facebook exchange claimed, but literally a matter of life and death for many. It is not that white presenting POC are less oppressed but rather, that more visibly presenting POC are often easier to single out and oppress. For example, why weren’t German Americans or Italian Americans also interned during the onset of the second World War? It might be because, as antiracist educator Jane Elliot says, white presenting individuals are able to “exercise a freedom that none of these [visibly presenting] people of color have:” and that is the ability to conceal visible brownness. No matter how hard people like me try to assimilate at the end of the day we are still stuck in our brown (and beautiful) skin.

My visibly dark skin has similarly remained a liability in several instances in the music education world. I would like to share one particular moment that I experienced while attending a popular conference for band directors in Seattle, WA. During the night of the final concert I came down to the conference room where the event was to be held. A short distance away from the venue I realized that I was not wearing my conference badge. I didn’t think it was a problem because I watched several people being allowed to enter even without a badge. Dressed down to business casual, I crossed the threshold and immediately felt a hand on my arm, “Excuse me sir, where is your badge?” As I watched several more badgeless people enter the room I replied, “I left it in my room and the concert is about to start.” I will never forget the following words “I’m sorry sir, the concert is for conference attendees only.” Confused at this point I pointed to the fact that the majority of the people coming through the doors were also without a badge. Again came the words except this time with a sly smirk, “I’m sorry sir, the concert is for conference attendees only.” A burning flood of historical trauma, the countless racial slurs thrown at me as a kid, the deculturation I was subjected to in school, and the many microagressions I experienced during my undergraduate years rushed to my ears. With my ROM overwhelmed in a split second, I turned speechless and walked away. When I see a crowd of white faces staring back at me in music education settings, I am immediately made aware of my visibility and often reminded of the embarrassment I felt in that moment.

It is experiences like this one that have left me with the unfaltering belief that it is imperative that individuals organizing events focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion make the active recruitment of multiple participants of color (who present phenotypically as people of color) a priority rather than an afterthought. Understandably it is difficult, and nearly impossible, to “check all of the boxes” of diverse representation in every single panel. However, it is not at all difficult to actively recruit and stack them so that at least a critical mass (in the Claude Steele sense) of visible representation is met on every panel. Even in the event that a participant cancels, there should already have been enough (meaning multiple) POC to fill the [achievement, earning, opportunity] gap. By not including these voices is, in effect, to conceal the oppressions of these visible groups by limiting opportunities for them to share their lived experience that is grounded in the overwhelming oppression that they have been subjected to their entire lives.

Throughout my experience as a consultant, clinician, and teacher I have consistently heard white individuals express fear of touching the DEI third rail: tokenism. The concern is that by placing a person of color in a visible position just to meet the diversity quota will, in effect, tokenize the individual. As a visibly presenting POC who has experienced this phenomenon first hand I totally agree with the sentiment but, unfortunately, this is where the conversation tends to stop. This fear, often driven by a tenuous understanding of what tokenism actually is, tends to hamper any further effort. So let’s discuss tokenism briefly. As defined in Webster’s dictionary, “the policy or practice of making only a symbolic effort (as to desegregate).” One of the first academic explorations of tokenism came from Rosabeth Kanter in 1977 in her study of women in large industrial corporations. A key point of her paper had to do with how the visibility of being the only token individual in a work setting leads to performance pressure in that the perception of their performance is inextricably linked and extrapolated to represent the abilities of their entire group. Connected to Claude Steele’s notion of achieving critical mass to combat stereotype threat, this is why it is absolutely crucial to start the planning of every DEI event with maintaining a well-balanced ratio of diverse perspectives and visible representation of marginalized groups in mind.

From a panelist:

“There is a lot of privilege in telling a whole panel of mostly underrepresented people [in this case women] that they aren’t marginalized enough to count.”

Admittedly, I have witnessed several moments in music education settings where intersecting oppressions leads individuals to engage in an “oppression arms race” where they load up on simple understandings of complex concepts and battle their way to the bottom of the dogmatic dogpile to reign as the uncontested queen (or king) of “call out” culture. Conversely, I have also witnessed White individuals preemptively buttressing their defenses to prevent against well-informed intellectual critiques that they feel will be aimed at their privilege rather than the content of their discussions. Both approaches are damaging to civil discourse and, honestly, need to stop. Like, now. There are a few issues that must first be pointed out. First, as Ibram X. Kendi states in his glorious book “How to Be Antiracist,” we are all implicated in perpetuating racism in some way. In the United States, racism is present in the contaminated air we breathe (Little Village in Chicago, Illinois), the polluted water we drink (Flint, Michigan), and the salted soil that prevents humanizing growth and gnarls our roots (Barrio Logan in San Diego, California). With every breath we take, sip we swallow, and moment of development, we become blighted by the toxic waste of white supremacy that we passively absorb just by living in this country. Some of us notice the gradual bleaching of our leaves and eventually seek out intellectual remedies that we take without fully understanding the ingredients that are contained within them. Oftentimes our self-administered doses are not quite accurate and we experience unwanted side effects such as a closed mind, acute defensiveness, and sophomoric superiority complex.

The reality is that what we need now is humility, not heroes because, again, we are all implicated in perpetuating racist systems to some degree. Living an antiracist life and engaging in DEI work requires a constant shifting of your equity windvane to align itself with the current discussions regardless of the size of your rod of oppression(s). This means that if we are engaged in this work we should all be ready to learn from each other about how to improve and refine our practice. So much energy, as I observed in this day long exchange (actually, two days because I just received a response while writing this), was spent by individuals policing tone and trying to intellectually outmaneuver each other to prove that their oppression is bigger. Just like standing in front of a single tree in a forest that is obstructing our path to enlightened equity, our oppression seems to be the biggest because we are the ones who are standing the closest to it. What we all need to do is take a step back, describe our tree of oppression to everybody else and help each other navigate a clear path so they are not constantly bumping into the same one that we did just moments ago. Again, we need humility not heroes.

The second issue I would like to address is the notion of white allyship in music education. I want to begin this section by stating that, although I was accused of believing otherwise, I unequivocally honor the sacrifices that white allies have made while working to undo the systemic oppression of POC. One of my historical heroes is John Brown, the abolitionist who proudly went to the galleys for his beliefs. It is widely understood that without his attack on Harpers Ferry the onset of the civil war would have been delayed and, ultimately, that slavery would have been prolonged. White allyship is a crucial component to ensuring that marginalized voices are amplified but, with this allyship, also comes a responsibility to understand when it is necessary to step aside, lean back, and listen.

I would like to preface this next section by stating that I understand the embarrassment, pain, and anger that is associated with having something that you have worked so hard on being critiqued. As a young academic, I absolutely get it. The comments that I shared in this conversation were well measured to have informative weight rather than be a cumbersome “call out.” Unfortunately, in the resulting responses to my comments I was exposed to some of the most vehement expressions of white fragility that I have ever witnessed. Between the huffs of the profanity laced haranguings that were leveled at me I sensed that my comments pertaining to the optics of the situation, while intended to be helpful, came across as hurtful. In order to address this I would like to use the words of a white woman and share a quote by Robin Diangelo from her book “White Fragility”

“Many of us see emotions as naturally occurring. But emotions are political in two key ways. First, our emotions are shaped by our biases and beliefs, our cultural frameworks. For example, if I believe (consciously or unconsciously) that it is normal and appropriate for men to express anger but not women, I will have a very different emotional response to men’s and women’s expressions of anger. I might see a man who expresses anger as competent and in charge and may feel respect for him, while I see a woman who expresses anger as childish and out of control and may feel contempt for her. If I believe that only bad people are racist, I will feel hurt, offended, and shamed when an unaware assumption of mine is pointed out. If I instead believe that having racist assumptions is inevitable (but possible to change), I will feel gratitude when an unaware racist assumption is pointed out; now I am aware of and can change that assumption. In this way emotions are not natural; they are the result of the frameworks we are using to make sense of social relations. And, of course, social relations are political. Our emotions are also political because they are often externalized; our emotions drive behavior that impact other people.”

Perhaps in my approach to this conversation my words were imbued with the emotions of having lived under the oppressive thumb of racism my entire life. Although I try to be intentional with my tone, it is possible that I might have slipped and not realized it. However, this just illustrates the importance of maintaining civil discourse in our collective efforts to undo the knotted mess of inequity set before us. We all want to see it undone, and we all have to, at moments, step back, rest our fingers, and be open to the suggestions that might offer a different perspective on how to pull apart a particularly befuddling section. I would like to end this reflection by offering a serious, genuine, and no way pandering thanks to the panelists of this webinar who are engaged in this work. It is important that DEI efforts be made at all levels, in all settings, by all people.



Christopher Mena

Antiracist music teacher, consultant, and PhD candidate living in the Pacific Northwest.