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Inclusiveness at HU 2018: Next Thoughts

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Halo on the Saturday Night showHalo on the Saturday Night showI told you that this theme would recur in my reflections on Harmony University. Not sure as I start to write this one whether I’ve got one or two more posts-worth of notes, but we’ll find out as we go.

One major event that you can’t write about Inclusivity at HU2018 without discussing was the Monday evening elective convened by Chris Rimple. The combined training material he has developed to help barbershop chapters become more inclusive with a panel discussion (and, ultimately, a whole-room discussion) on the kinds of behaviour people have experienced in both their barbershop careers and outside lives that have left them feeling excluded (and/or enraged – some examples were shocking).

The outside lives point is a key one, as the macro-aggressions people have to negotiate in their day-to-day lives provide the context in which they experience the various micro-aggressions that pepper their barbershop experiences. We talk about the ‘barbershop bubble’ to articulate the experience of spaces or occasions bracketed off from daily life, but each act of casual racism or homophobia within barbershop bursts that bubble and helps create the same kinds of structures of privilege and marginalisation inside as you find outside.

If you don’t know about the work of the quartet Halo, it is about time you had a look at their Race and #Realtalk programme. It is astutely designed: on one hand to harness the unifying and healing power of song to bring people together, and on the other to engage in the difficult uncomfortable conversations that are needed to raise consciousness about racism and thence change behaviours. All too often musicians like to kid ourselves that we’ve done enough by participating in an activity that brings people together in harmony, but as Shana Oshiro so succinctly put it, you also have to deal with what happens when the music stops.

One of the points that emerged in both Chris’s material and the wider discussion was how a group that does not at yet appear particularly diverse can nonetheless develop inclusive behaviours (after all inclusivity and diversity are not the same thing). Indeed, you are unlikely to attract members from hitherto marginalised demographics unless you prepare the ground in your chorus culture and behaviours.

Repertoire choice was one area that emerged during this discussion. The first stage of this is relinquishing songs that participate in divisive ideologies – as in #donewithdixie. But beyond this, deliberately choosing to extend your breadth of repertoire signals to both audiences and potential members a sense of openness to others. It takes a certain amount of imaginative and emotional flexibility to make sense of music in different styles, a willingness to consider how the world looks from different perspectives. Doing this in your primary activity of music-making develops the capacities of members to be open at the same time as it signals to outsiders that you are willing to make the effort.

The discussion brought to mind a previous conversation about chorus culture and psychological safety. A barbershopper told me of when one of their chorus’s administrative leaders had made a passing homophobic comment, and how in response they had immediately experienced a loss of trust. The attack wasn’t directly on them, but they nonetheless withdrew emotionally in the face of someone who was prepared to attack others.

This has implications for both recruitment and artistry. Many people who present as belonging to groups endowed with social privilege (white, straight, able-bodied) may still be inclined to judge exclusionary behaviours towards marginalised groups harshly and will vote with their feet. Particularly, if you believe political demographers, younger people.

Those who stay despite exclusionary discourses and/or behaviours will find it harder to give of themselves. Emotional withdrawal is not the best inner state with which to create communicative and moving performances.

And the thing that really rose to the top for me as we heard the stories from round the room was that, whilst some of the difficulties people had encountered in their barbershop careers were clearly led from the top (as in that previous example), many emerged in the interstices of their musical life. Casual comments, some well-meaning but hurtful, others just callously unthinking, form the substrate of lived experience.

The challenge is thus one of culture change. If things don’t change at the level of leadership and policy, then it isn’t going to happen. But that alone does not finish the job. How do you get the grassroots members chatting before rehearsal to be as inclusive as your mission statement?

The Barbershop Harmony Society, at this moment in its history, presents us with a living, breathing case study of how this works in practice. And it turns out that the pile of miscellaneous notes I have that wouldn’t fit in this post provide some interesting snapshots of this work-in-progress. We’re not done on this theme yet.

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