I’d like to bring up two formulations that you used in our panel discussion: one is the quotation, “What are you prepared to give up?” By whom is it? You also, with regard to colonialism as practised by the British Empire, spoke of the necessity of “undoing the script”, and I’d like to ask you just how you define “script” here.
Shzr Ee Tan (SET): The quotation here comes from Chi-chi Nwanoku, a British musician of Nigerian and Irish descent who’s strongly committed to promoting the inclusion of BMEs (“Black and Minority Ethnic” individuals) in the everyday life of the classical music world. Her point in saying this was to encourage people to reflect upon the privileged position of musicians and to initiate a broad discussion on doing away with entrenched privileges in Great Britain. Nwanoku, for her part, founded the Chineke! Orchestra in 2015; this is Europe’s first professional orchestra in which BME musicians are in the majority.
My use of the term “script” draws on the work of Richard Schechner and Erving Goffman (among others), white theoreticians from the fields of sociology and intercultural theory. I believe that in our everyday lives, and not just on stage, we perform according to certain scripts in our conversations. For instance, I speak differently to you, or to my line manager, than I do to my mother, because my respective relationships with all three of you are different due to the circumstances and hierarchies in which we are placed. My choice of words, my tone, and even my body language change. Sometimes the differences are due to differences in intimacy and relational professionalism. But often, we follow a sociocultural script bound by ongoing and unequal power structurations of society in which some people must unconsciously “play” at being inferior in order to even have a conversation, simply because it’s easier to do so. Resisting such a script takes both a great deal of effort and a lot of courage.
So how can one enable individuals to either not follow or change a given script? And to this end, what latitudes—such as safe spaces—are necessary in concepts of teaching, scholarship, and research at arts universities in order that they be inclusive as well as equitable in terms of gender?
SET: I work as Director of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion at the School of Performing and Digital Arts at Royal Holloway, where the student community is very international. As an international student, you pay higher tuition than domestic students do. It’s in England that such students frequently encounter their initial experiences with discrimination, such as in the form of micro-aggressions like people rolling their eyes or comments on their accents—and the affected individuals often never address such things openly. In their countries of origin, these students were typically part of a majority and mostly from the upper social strata. So it’s frequently the case that international students unfortunately exhibit a certain homogeneity in terms of class. But back to the micro-aggressions: their repetition transforms them into a type of structural oppression that, over the long term, can give rise to truly awful psychological conflicts in those who are affected: it becomes unpaid and affective labour. Like carrying an extra 10 kg burden every day, just constantly having to explain to people where you’re really from or stating your ability to use the English language before they can take you seriously as a professional. So one shouldn’t simply say that discrimination is whenever someone’s feelings get hurt; the injuries we’re talking about go far deeper and are structural in nature.
In terms of the necessity of “safe spaces”, I’d like to mention a case where we held a study day on the topic of “Cultural Imperialism and the New ‘Yellow Peril’ in Western Classical Music” in June 2019 as part of the research project with Maiko Kawabata. In that study day’s open forum, we invited the participants to form small breakout groups: those were safe spaces that worked, where everyone was able to speak very freely and openly. More importantly, we—and I include allies here—could also make mistakes in these spaces and ask questions without being judged.
Do you have suggestions on how university decision-making bodies such as search committees could be made more inclusive?
SET: At Royal Holloway’s Department of Music, I don’t think we really have an official strategy yet that actually makes the composition of these types of bodies compulsorily inclusive or diverse, but because of our relatively small size, we actively work to ensure this each time a search committee is assembled. It is mandatory, though, for everyone joining such a group to complete a training unit on “unconscious bias”, which can result in discriminatory behaviour. The vision of having not only students, but also university personnel become more diverse is a very welcome one; I do, however, want to emphasise the danger posed by identity politics as it’s now being practised in the United States: there, we see individual marginalised groups being pitted against each other in unhealthy dynamics of victimisation and blame, rather than the reinforcement of plurality on all levels of society.
This interview was conducted in English and has been translated back from its abbreviated German-language version.