Otelia Cromwell Day, White Privilege and Smith’s Glee Club: How to Talk About Whiteness

Photo by Yuka Oiwa '16 | Glee Club members sang their opening song at Otelia Cromwell Day dispersed in the audience.

Photo by Yuka Oiwa ’16 | Glee Club members sang their opening song at Otelia Cromwell Day dispersed in the audience.


Jessica Marlor ’16
Contributing Writer

I’ve written this piece over six or seven times. I have so much discomfort over how to articulate this issue. Systemic racism is easy to ignore as a white student, but I cannot sweep this under the rug any longer.

This year, I became president of the Smith College Glee Club due to my love of singing and my commitment to the power of choral music. In this role, I act as a point person for the community at large, so I must open my eyes and ears to the campus whisperings inside and outside of the group. I must admit, when I assumed this role, I did not think I would have to confront the way that whiteness plays out in the Glee Club and in the greater Smith community. But the elephant in the room cannot be ignored any longer. I need to talk about our whiteness.

A few weeks ago, a member of the group brought up the question: why do we sing at Otelia Cromwell Day? This led me to consider another related question: why is the Glee Club mostly white? And what does it mean for us to sing traditional black spirituals without any critical reflection of our whiteness?

As a majority white group, we do not understand the historical significance of the songs we sing. When white people hear songs like “Amazing Grace” or “Swing Low” white privilege blinds us to the song’s inner dialogue of resistance and resilience. No matter how much the white members of our group grapple with history, we still do not understand the fury and passion behind these songs. No matter how much white musicians try to alter the rhythms and harmonies to fit our western musical paradigms, we still cannot understand these songs at their core.

As a white student I am trying to be mindful, trying to listen to the voices of black students and to address the larger systemic issues of whitewashing and black oppression within Smith. We, as a group, can try to open up our ears and eyes to the experiences of people of color. We can try to educate ourselves on the origin of the songs.

In order for songs to retain their sacredness, it is imperative that they continue to be sung. We would be doing an injustice to the black members of our group, and the community at large by censoring these songs. Music does not lie in sheet music. Songs are born in real time, and their meanings can only be kept alive through song. Still, are we the group to be singing these songs? If not us, then who?

The Glee Club cabinet is trying to understand this issue, but we have certainly not solved this problem. It is my hope that we can open up a dialogue within the Glee Club to confront these issues. This is a systemic problem that engulfs Smith, and the problem within Glee is a reflection of a greater issue of representation at Smith. I want to make Otelia Cromwell day a time for solidarity and allyship.

It is my goal to bring this problem to light rather than ignore it and go on merrily singing songs we don’t own and have no claim to. I still am learning how to be an agent against perpetuating racism in this community. I will strive to open my ears and eyes to the whitewashing that goes on in both academia and the classical music tradition. The Glee Club is here to sing with persons of color, to uplift these songs and add our voices to the chorus. We’re here, and we need to talk about our whiteness.


One Comment

  1. Thanks for your reflections. I recall related conversations about privilege in Smith choral music when I was a student and singer about 15 years ago. One of the many issues raised at that time was how class privilege (which is of course entangled with race privilege) was reproduced in the audition system, which prioritizes certain kinds of previous singing experience/training over others (e.g. the ability to “sight sing” from sheet music, over the ability to learn a tune by hearing it and over vocal improvisation). Singers who attended schools with highly resourced music departments, or whose families could afford private singing lessons, are more likely to impress in these auditions – one of many factors that may contribute to the Glee Club’s whiteness. The dilemmas you highlight around cultural appropriation, and whose voices are raised up by the contradictory situation of Black songs sung by a group that is disproportionately white and class-privileged, were also discussed then. I hope the conversation does not end here but continues in informed and caring dialogue among all the stakeholders (students and faculty) in Smith and in the choral music program.

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