A few weeks ago, a colleague brought up “liking classical music” with me in passing. It probably read to most people in the room like a friendly-overture moment – “Oh, you like classical music? I like classical music too!” And really, if the shared taste had been almost anything else, I probably would have accepted the overture and moved on (despite the fact that this particular colleague is a top repeat offender on our racist/elitist/heteronormative/ableist leaderboard). But it was classical music, and “liking classical music” is such a class- and race-encoded thing.
There are innumerable facets to this coding, even after I narrow down to just the ones that affect me. It’s an Asian American stereotype to like and be good at performing classical music. And that stereotype is usually described as Asian Americans trying to “fit in” with the white middle-to-upper-middle class. That troubles me just by itself. It’s an interesting thing that so many Asian families pick classical music as the thing to help their children “fit in.” The classical music performance sphere is an awfully elitist space; being successful in it doesn’t just mean that you’ve managed to fit in with general society, it means that you now actually intimidate a lot of people in general society. And Western classical music itself is also an awfully hegemonic and appropriative cultural tradition. I mean, even the most basic core aspects of modern music are grounded in the bias of western classical tradition; “equal temperament” and tonality are taught as canonical standards, and non-tempered tonality, modality, and atonality are seen as avant-garde …because they were appropriated from non-European musical traditions, much of it east Asian and south Asian. And really, that just makes the whole “good at classical music” stereotype seem just that much more messed up to me. Basically, classical music has to be a “problematic fave” in my life; I started playing and loving it long before I began thinking critically about what that meant, and now I can neither disown nor fully embrace it.
I’m a fairly skilled musician with some pretty solid experience as a soloist and in different kinds of ensembles. I sing and play piano and flute, and I’ve studied a lot of theory and music history for someone who is not a professional/semi-professional performer or a music scholar of any kind. And that leads me to another thing that chafes me about the good-at-classical-music stereotype – it really does actually take all that formal study for white people to be convinced that people of color are legitimately qualified/good at things, and that we take stuff that we do seriously, even things that are “just hobbies” (And, I’m not even going to get into that whole oppression-repression complex right now). I honestly don’t know my colleague’s particular experience with classical music. But even if I were to ask, no one would recognize it as a germane question; my colleague is a white male and white males are allowed to be interested in anything they want. They can say “I like classical music,” people start asking them for recommendations of things to listen to, and BOOM, just by saying they like a thing, they are given approved-recommender status. But if I say I “like” classical music, I get pointed questions like “Oh, how’d you get into that?” basically asking me to prove that I “really like-like” it. That is, whenever the response isn’t some slick joke about how stereotypically Asian I am.
Part of me wanted to rip into my colleague about how I don’t just LIKE classical music, I KNOW it from having been a classically trained musician for more than three quarters of my life, and furthermore, my relationship to it is representative of the core dilemma of my Asian American identity. Part of me wanted to challenge my colleague by stoutly saying, “No, I don’t like it, it is a wildly hegemonic and appropriative cultural tradition and I will tell you why in a long and steady tirade.” But I didn’t do either of those things; I grated out “Yeah… I do.”
It was so choked and narrow-eyed that I am absolutely certain that my colleague (and our other colleagues whom we were meeting with at the time) must have noticed. But I’m not sorry. I think my colleague is lucky to have gotten that level of civility from me when he basically forced me to act the model minority role, right in front of all of our colleagues, and there was no good way for me to respond. I hate that this guy made me put on Asian-whiteface, and he did it so unconsciously that everybody, including him, just thought he was being friendly and collegial. On good days, I like to think that the way I leverage aspects of my personal identity that also happen to be work-related skills (like being able to read Western music notation) can be on my terms. I’ve had one or two of those days since that day. But that day and all of the other days in between still trouble me.