Monday, December 21, 2020

The Silencer


How often were you admonished as a child not to speak of something because it “wasn’t nice”? There’s a kind of whispery shame embedded in such rebukes. As such it often seems to be attached to many things with a vaguely personal hygiene/bodily function basis. Don’t talk about how someone smells, her weight, his complexion. Does she color her hair? Is it a toupée? Is she pregnant?  Is she wearing a slip? A bra? Has he had “work done”?

Don’t talk about that. It isn’t nice.

In Howard County we have a group of parents who would like you to know it “isn’t nice” to talk about race. Even raising the topic in polite conversation casts negative aspersions on the speaker. In many cases they are not going so far even as to object that naming issues of race is unfair, inaccurate, or unwarranted. They’re just “not nice”. If you are one of them I daresay you think that all the right people know this.

I don’t know. Maybe that’s true. I am not one of the right people.

How can they bring up race when looking at these nice children? Don’t they know that might hurt someone’s feelings or make them feel uncomfortable or left out? If you point to a lack of inclusion of Black or Brown children it must mean you don’t place any value on the white children. 

That’s not nice.

Someone must not have clued in the Baltimore Sun because this week they ran this piece:

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s roster of 75 includes just one Black musician. Critics say BSO must do better.

Dated December 18th, the article by Elizabeth Nonemaker lays out in large and small ways the failure of the Baltimore Symphony organization to include Black musicians over a very long period of time. It’s not an opinion piece; it’s a straight-up, journalistically-researched and vetted news article. In fact, the Sun must have quite a bit of confidence in this story. A version ran on the front page of the Sunday morning digital edition yesterday.

The front page.

How do we get to a point where there are brilliant and gifted Black musicians studying, training, and auditioning all over this country and we have exactly one in the Baltimore Symphony?

Gosh, I don’t know. Maybe we shouldn’t talk about that.

It isn’t nice.


What is nice? 

Pleasant, agreeable. Appropriate, fitting. (Oxford Languages)

What nice will do for its apologists: shield them from the light of truth. Protect them from being uncomfortable with the logical consequences of their thoughts and actions.

Nice is a weapon. It may come at you, pleasant and agreeable, but it will brook no dissent.

If you cannot talk about the absence of unrepresented voices and faces you cannot do anything about the missing musicians, either. It’s all connected. 

And it’s a choice.

Whether we are talking about how Howard County students feel about returning to school, or how the Baltimore Symphony has maintained an almost 100 per cent white work force, “nice” is not the bar we should be setting for ourselves. It’s not a default or a neutral setting: it’s a silencer.

We should not be silent.

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