On being the only one

Our guest blogger this week is Diljeet Bhachu. Diljeet is a SGSAH-funded doctoral researcher at the University of Edinburgh. Based in the Reid School of Music, she is currently researching how people learn to facilitate musical learning, specifically in primary school and community music contexts, with an interest in how lifelong and life-wide experiences shape educators’ practices and beliefs. Diljeet is a musician, working on creative projects alongside her research, as well as being involved with the Musicians’ Union as an activist. She tweets @DiljeetB_Flute, and blogs at diljeetbhachu.wordpress.com.

Last month I wrote this blogpost for We the Humanities about exploring and validating identities within the arts and academia, including my own identity crisis as a diasporic woman of colour working in and researching the music education sector in Scotland. This post is a continuation of some of my thoughts.

 Bringing race into research

Not so long ago I realised that I’ve never thought about race within my own research, despite becoming increasingly conscious of my position as a woman of colour as a result of being a researcher. Perhaps it’s because I grew up being the only person of colour in any musical activity I engaged in at school, and one of only a handful of people of colour (PoC) on my course at university. Outside of specific cultural or religious contexts, I’ve never been taught by a PoC, nor did I see PoC in the industries I wanted to work in, or the ensembles I played in. And so I stopped looking for other PoC in the circles around me. At the same time, my PhD journey has been one of self-development, of coming to terms with how I have treated my being of colour, and seeking to reconnect with the heritage I abandoned in pursuit of getting here.

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Observations on race in music education research

I recently attended the 10th International Conference for Research in Music Education (RIME), one of the bigger music education conferences based in the UK. Now, when I attend music education events in Scotland, I expect to be the only delegate of colour. When I attend UK-wide events, especially if they take place in London or another large, diverse city, I expect a little more diversity. At an international conference I expect much more, but at RIME I was very aware of the lack of PoC – I counted 5 delegates including myself. Race wasn’t missing in the conference programme, however – it just wasn’t being addressed by the few academics of colour in attendance.

Fortunately, when race was a central focus of a paper, the presenters were explicit in acknowledging their privilege, as white women, to talk about race without being criticised, understanding that they had a platform and a responsibility to use it. I’ve made similar observations in my department, noticing male colleagues who will point out the lack of women on reading lists and in the curriculum. These allies create spaces for a less confident voice like mine to begin to raise these issues.

 Just another tick in a box?12221292503_c3eff8db68_b

As an academic, imposter syndrome isn’t new to me. However, being an academic of colour has its own additional dimension of perceived fraudulence. Every opportunity, every offer, is laced with paranoia – am I being given this on merit, or because of the colour of my skin? Being the only person of colour in the room doesn’t help these feelings. As a first generation daughter of immigrants, I also notice that while I am surrounded by diverse cohorts of international students, I rarely meet peers who, like me, have been born and/or grown up in a country as a minority within society. People are often surprised to hear my Scottish accent, and this usually only happens to me in academic contexts.

There are two sides to this issue – the lack of visible role models within academia to encourage young people to enter industries where they are under-represented, and the lack of understanding or support from their diasporic communities. Academia, especially in the arts and humanities, is a somewhat unknown area for the South Asian community in Scotland. The tension between wanting to treat my doctoral studies like a “normal job” while simultaneously being stuck with student status only adds to the confusion when trying to explain what I do.

Finding a way forward

I feel lucky to be going through such a formative phase of my life at this point in time.  I’ve begun forming myself a peer network of academics and artists of colour, through places like Glasgow Women’s Library and their Collect:if network, and events like the upcoming BSA Women of Colour Researchers in Scotland Mentoring Symposium. When I was growing up I didn’t see role models in academia or the arts. I didn’t realise that I was already subconsciously limiting my ambitions because of a lack of visible diversity, until I saw British-Indian, Sikh women, like Vini Lander and Kalwant Bhopal, become professors in fields not far from my own, and all of a sudden the idea of one day becoming Professor Bhachu seemed less farfetched.

I’ve had a few conversations about quotas in the past few years, and while I agree that it’s not an ideal solution, it is a guaranteed way to increase the visibility of minority and marginalised people within society and create platforms for role models to inspire future generations, so that one day we don’t need quotas to tick boxes.

Maybe I am here because I tick a box – I can never really know if that’s all in my head – but I do know that I have a platform, and with it a responsibility to be the visible brown face, and audible brown voice, that I didn’t have.

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4 thoughts on “On being the only one

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