Learning About Stereotypes and Racism Through Two Works of Music
Updated: Jun 5
Due to the recent death of George Floyd and the unrest all over the country, people are again bringing forward conversations about institutionalized racism. Parents and educators are looking for resources to help address racism and police violence with their students. Here is a quick lesson you can do with your students.
This lesson is very basic and can help facilitate conversations with your students about stereotypes, personal assumptions and the larger problem of racism.
1. Begin by watching this video. In 2014, classical pianist and composer Jade Simmons premiered her piece Black Beethoven. She wrote the piece in response to many of the racial stereotypes she has faced as a classical musician.
2. Prompts for discussion:
What happened to Jade in some of the stories that she told in her song?
She tells a story about when she was 12 years old and won a piano competition. Her lyrics say something about a man on stage with her.
She says: "He looked me straight in my cute little black face, told me with a smile I was a credit to my black race."
Why did the man say that to her? What does the man think of her, what does he think about black people in general ? What did he mean when he said she was a credit to her black race and wished others were more like her?
She tells another story about a woman mistaking her for an usher and telling her to get away when Jade tries going on stage. What does it say about the woman that she can't possibly believe Jade is the pianist about to perform?
She says "I was a nice girl, never being contrary, until I figured out they only wanted me in February." Explain to your students that February is Black History Month. Ms. Simmons received invitations as a black pianist, not just a pianist.
At the beginning of the video Ms. Simmons tell the audience that she has never experienced explicit racism in her career. In all of the stories she tells, she is never in danger. No one wants to hurt her. But over and over people see her as a black woman first and pianist second.
3. Next, watch this powerful live performance of Composer Joel Thompson's composition Seven Last Words Of The Unarmed. Using the text structure of Joseph Haydn's Seven Last Words of Christ, composer Joel Thompson chose seven last words of unarmed black men killed by police and other authority figures when he wrote this piece.
4. Read the quotes to your students and have a discussion about the piece.
“Why do you have your guns out?” – Kenneth Chamberlain, 66
“What are you following me for?” – Trayvon Martin, 16
“Mom, I’m going to college.” – Amadou Diallo, 23
“I don’t have a gun. Stop shooting.” – Michael Brown, 18
“You shot me! You shot me!” – Oscar Grant, 22
“It’s not real.” – John Crawford, 22
“I can’t breathe.” – Eric Garner, 43
5. Prompts for discussion:
When these men were killed they were unarmed. They could not hurt the other people around them, but they were perceived as a dangerous threat and it cost them their lives.
How did the piece make you feel when the chorus were beating their chests and singing "you shot me?"
The stereotype of the strong, willful and violent "black buck" who can only be controlled with direct force has been a prevalent perception of black men in America since the 1600s. This assumption on the character of black men is very serious and it endangers black men.
6. Have a conversation with your students about assumptions and stereotypes in their lives.
Prompts for discussion:
Have you ever had someone assume something about you that was not true?
Have people assumed things about you because of the way you dress?
Have people assumed things about you or family because of the faith you practice, or because you don't practice a faith?
Think about a time when you assumed something about someone. Why did you assume that thing? Where did the idea come from? Sometimes we even assume nice things about people that are not true. These are positive stereotypes.
7. Talk about positive stereotypes and how they are not true either.
Asian people are really smart.
Black people are good dancers and natural athletes.
Native Americans are in touch with nature.
People who wear glasses are smart.
People who dress really nice are nice.
8. End your discussion by talking about how assumptions and stereotypes are sometimes ridiculous and laughable, but they can also be serious and dangerous. They are all wrong and blind us to the full person in front of us. Racism is a very serious and dangerous kind of stereotyping. It is a problem that we all live with, but we don't all experience it in the same way. It is important that we check ourselves often and see if we are making assumptions about people that are not true. We should always endeavor to see the person in front of us for who they are, not who we think they are.
"Every way of seeing is also a way of not seeing." -Helen Merrell Lynd
I hope this lesson is useful in facilitating great conversations for you and your students.
To learn more about Jade Simmons go here:
To learn more about Seven Last Words of the Unarmed go here:
To learn more about African American stereotypes in American history go here: