I want to thank Melissa Wimbish for: bringing this issue to light; sharing with me her thoughts and notes; and providing crucial editorial feedback on drafts of this post. Her support was essential in my ability to get these thoughts out of my head and into written form.

“To have privilege in one or more areas does not mean you are wholly privileged. Surrendering to the acceptance of privilege is difficult, but it is really all that is expected. What I remind myself, regularly, is this: the acknowledgment of my privilege is not a denial of the ways I have been and am marginalized, the ways I have suffered.”

Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist: Essays

Recent events have brought into focus an issue that has been weighing on me for several years now: White women feminists who, having experienced oppression as a result of sexist attitudes, fail to transfer their experience into empathy for those suffering under other oppressions (such as racism, or sexism and racism combined). When we spotlight our own difficulties and fail to acknowledge the experiences of others, we fail to be active proponents against oppression. Too many white women, when asked to examine their own narrow views or to deepen their understanding of other forms of oppression, shut down the conversation and assert their position as the victim.

The dismissal of racism

I’ve been seeing this play out in several industries on Twitter; for instance, witnessing Sia bluntly dismiss the concerns of the autistic community over her new movie featuring a nonverbal autistic girl (played by an actress who is not autistic). One day later, a friend retweeted a thread written by Melissa Wimbish (an opera singer based in Baltimore) that highlighted racist portions of an email written by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s principal flutist Emily Skala in the summer of 2020. Skala wrote the emails after participating in a Zoom meeting with members of the orchestra to discuss the Black Lives Matter movement and related protests in Baltimore.

These emails were not the only instance of Skala’s problematic racist views being circulated among her colleagues and on social media. As reported by several outlets, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has recently issued a brief public rebuke of Skala’s behavior, concluding with, “Ms. Skala does not speak for the BSO, nor do her statements reflect our core values or code of conduct grounded in humanity and respect.”

The majority of the news coverage thus far has focused on Skala’s Facebook posts promoting conspiracy theories about the provenance of the coronavirus, vaccination, and the U.S. presidential election results. Only one article, published by The Baltimore Sun on February 16, mentions Wimbish’s thread and the racist comments made by Skala in her email:

“Our color palette is acoustical, not visual,” Skala wrote in response to criticisms from her BSO colleagues, local artists, and patrons that the BSO does not reflect the diversity of Baltimore, a city with a population that is over 60% Black. She went on to say that, “In order to one day see more black musicians in orchestras, they need to be trained to love Classical music from an early age.” She referenced the BSO’s OrchKids music education program, which has been widely criticized by former employees. The Sun’s article is the only one to mention Skala’s false statement that the Black Lives Matter movement is a conspiracy created by the Democratic Party and funded by George Soros.

The dismissal of racists

Perhaps you are reading this and thinking, “What’s so wrong with those comments?” Indeed, The Sun has since published commentary from two readers who argue that Skala’s beliefs shouldn’t be taken seriously, that she isn’t a lawmaker, and that she has become a victim of “cancel culture.” One reader even suggested that Skala is owed an apology.

Let’s pause here and sit with these sentiments: “Don’t take Skala seriously.” “Skala has no meaningful power to influence the world around her.” “People are victimizing her.” It is worth noting that these sentiments effectively infantilize Skala; the readers’ comments have the earmarks of sexism in their dismissal of her statements. By turning Skala into the victim, she is absolved of any responsibility for her actions, and tacitly allowed to be a public figure who faces no ramifications for her views—even the views that Facebook flagged for containing false or misleading language.

This reaction to biased speech is dangerous and damaging. Claiming that Skala should be ignored or spared criticism because of her supposed powerlessness discounts the very real power she holds in the arts community: as a faculty member at Peabody Conservatory, as a judge of youth orchestra competitions, and as a member of BSO’s audition committee who is directly involved in the hiring process. The trajectory of many careers has rested, at least in part, in her hands. And, as The Baltimore Sun reported in December, Skala is employed by the organization which receives the highest portion of Maryland’s arts funding in the millions. Skala and her colleagues at the BSO work in a publicly funded position; all of the people receiving full-time employment for their involvement with the BSO are public figures. As such, their public statements have considerable influence and should be open to scrutiny.

The danger of bias

By writing that the BSO’s “color palette is acoustical, not visual,” Skala invokes the tired concept of racial color-blindness, denying the very real existence of skin color. Racism affects a person’s reality, including their reality within the context of orchestral music. Pretending that race, and therefore racial bias, does not matter will not make it go away. Claiming that race doesn’t exist actively benefits systems that were built by white people for white people. This article does an excellent job of outlining the reality of systemic bias.

Skala’s belief that Black children “need to be trained to love Classical music from an early age” contradicts her statement about the BSO’s supposed “color palette.” If race is not a factor in the makeup of the BSO, why do Black children need to be trained to love classical music? This statement promotes the implicit bias that the appreciation of classical music is a white instinct and, therefore, unnatural to non-white children unless they receive guidance from white people. The belief that children of a certain racial demographic need “to be trained to love” classical music is biased and wrong. It fuels the systemic structures that continue to exclude people based on their race rather than their talent. Ironically, Skala’s supporters want us to ignore her public racist statements and focus on her flute playing.

Biased people, whether they are conscious of it or not, perpetuate systemic bias when they hold positions of influence. We must question the biases of industry leaders. We must engage in the larger discourse about deconstructing and addressing the negative effects of bias. Wimbish, like many performers and patrons of the arts, advocates for the removal or the censuring of members of the industry who doggedly promote racist sentiments. She also believes that clear industry guidelines for public propriety are essential for healthier workspaces. I see a parallel here with Codes of Conduct prohibiting harassment and bigotry that have been established in spaces like electronic music festivals and academic conferences.

A final plea

I’d like to end this missive with a plea to my white women readers, particularly those like me who are cis and abled: Please, if you have not already done so, examine the inclusiveness of your feminism. You will likely encounter discomfort in the pursuit of deepening your understanding of others’ perspectives: Do not run from it. Sit with it. Understand that the discomfort of living with racism, ableism, transphobia, and other poisonous biases every day of your life is far greater.

You can sign Wimbish’s petition calling for disciplinary action here: http://chng.it/8SBtXCNrPc

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