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  • Writer's pictureAdam Tan

Reflecting on My Experiences with Racism and Discrimination in the Percussion Community

Updated: Mar 25, 2021

I have honestly wanted to speak up about this for years.

You can watch my video about this topic here:

This highly poignant blog post by my friend Ivan Trevino inspired me to speak up. Thank you, Ivan:

To donate to the movement supporting the victims of the Atlanta tragedy and others who are affected by racially motivated attacks:

I want to start by expressing my deepest condolences to the 8 victims who lost their lives and their loved ones in the recent racially motivated mass shooting in Atlanta, and I’d also like to extend my condolences to those who have suffered in the multiple hate crimes towards not just AAPI people, but also those who identify as BIPOC around the world.

The fact that it takes an act of blatant terrorism like this to finally bring this obvious racial discrimination to the forefront of discussion is absolutely crazy.

Yet somehow (and I’m sure others can agree with me on this), I’m not surprised at all.

‘There is no racial and ethnic bias in the percussion community’

I saw a recent comment like this in a Facebook group about marimba from a white person on a post about uplifting and showing support to AAPI (Asian American/Pacific Islander) voices:

Sure, it’s the internet and people are entitled to their opinion.

But it truly frustrates me when people, white or not, insist that there is ‘no racial and ethnic bias’ in the percussion community.

And, as you can see in the reactions above, people actually agree with them.

That’s like saying ‘there is no homelessness because I’ve never been homeless, and I’ve never seen a homeless person in my experience’, or ‘I don’t sexually assault, and I’ve never witnessed sexual assault, therefore it’s not a thing’.

Just because you don’t see or perpetuate a problem doesn’t mean you get to announce its lack of existence.

And, in a post that is supposed to be about uplifting AAPI voices, they're more interested in defending a white person who not only was never under attack in the first place, but already gets plenty of recognition as a famous marimba professor. Why?

Anyway, to subvert this kind of blanket statement, I thought it might be worthwhile to share some of my own experiences as a person of Asian background growing up and working in a predominantly-white percussion community.

To those of you who are BIPOC, I hope this will help you to know that I’m on your side too. And if you are not BIPOC, I hope this will serve as a reminder that these biases do exist.

It’s not what you think – I promise

Before someone starts grandstanding and says that I’m part of 'cancel culture/being woke/playing the race card', I want to be clear about three things.

Firstly, I’m not interested in cancelling anyone or seeing anyone lose their livelihood over mistakes or insensitive comments, or even anyone who feels responsible for the experiences I list below. As someone who has made mistakes themselves and is a YouTube content creator, I’m aware of the difference between spreading awareness and fixing things, as opposed to cancelling and fixing nothing.

In fact, I’m even taking the liberty of not mentioning or showing names in this post (even if its public information), so no one needs to attack anyone.

Secondly, I definitely don’t represent all BIPOC, and I am speaking for myself when I discuss my own experiences. But I’m hopeful that as someone who is more publicly visible due to my work on YouTube, it might be reassuring for those affected to know that someone who is more well-known is standing with them.

And finally, I am not asking to be treated in a better way than white people, or to be given handouts because of how I look. I have run my studio and YouTube channel for the past few years without ever mentioning my race or ethnicity in my videos to ‘gain an advantage’. I earned my Master degree here in Australia and undertook years of work and performing experience exactly the same way my white colleagues have done.

The issue is, with systemic racism, we often have to work much harder than our white colleagues to achieve the same result.

Now that that's clear, let's talk about how this all started.

Early experiences (non-musical)

Growing up in Australia as someone of Asian appearance, I got the usual cavalcade of commentary about my appearance. Some of them would be more casual stereotypes/model minority type phrases, like these:

  • ‘You’re Australian…but where are you really from?’

  • ‘Your last name is Tan! Then you must be related to this other person with the surname Tan’

  • ‘But you can’t tell if you’re Chinese or Japanese, it looks the same to me’

  • ‘Happy birthday! Hope you get to eat lots of dumplings’

To more overtly offensive remarks like:

  • ‘Oh ching chong ling long, that’s what your language sounds like’

  • ‘So, let me guess, are your people coming to this recital?’

  • ‘You Chinese people have it so good’

  • ‘Your eyes are so small, how do you even see out of that?’

  • ‘F…..g chinks should just keep to themselves and go back to China’

And I would just brush them off usually, or if it really upset me, I’d run and hide. I couldn’t say anything about it, because they’d say it was just a joke, and insist they were not racist.

Then came more serious incidents.

When I was still in primary school, I remember seeing swastikas painted on Chinese restaurants near where I lived with words like ‘gooks will die’ and ‘Jews out’, and the groups responsible for these attacks firebombed three Chinese restaurants in Perth, in a clear attack against Asians and Jewish people. If you think I’m overexaggerating, you can read the news.

I also remember our family getting sent death threats from the perpetrator. During that time, I was afraid of going to school for fear of getting beaten up or even killed. I thought there was no chance I’d even make it to high school.

Yet instead of condemning that person and being outraged, the media focused on the fact that despite being part of a neo-nazi group, he was a Vietnam war veteran and that he should be given leniency for his war history.

Sound familiar? It’s one of many experiences I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

Representation matters – my indirect experiences in the music world

Ok, now let’s return to the title of this post.

As I’ve slowly grown my identity as a percussionist, marimba soloist, composer and content creator in an Australian percussion world, it’s been tricky navigating and overcoming the hurdles that appear in white-favoured systems. And again, I always felt like if I spoke up about my concerns, I’d be branded as ‘using the race card’, or ‘trying to get a free ride’.

For example, pretty much all Australian percussion events (be it small concerts, festivals, eisteddfods or workshop days) heavily favour white faculties, artists and music. Nationwide, every Australian percussion department’s faculty line-up is white or majority white.

I’ve never officially been recognised as a member of percussion faculty (even after actually teaching at places and having a staff card), despite me having similar or better qualifications and international performing/teaching experience to those who are recognised as percussion faculty there.

I remember there was a ‘diversity’ music and arts research symposium organised by a white professor (with no diversity-related academic qualifications or research to their name), where the entire lineup and key artists were a majority of older straight white females and males, most of which came from privileged backgrounds. You really can’t make this stuff up.

It was given priority funding and had full backing, while our marimba festival (which had far greater reach, a lineup of diverse artists and participants from around the world and was aimed at nurturing young people without having to use the term ‘diversity’) received a small token amount of funding and was told to schedule around the symposium.

Why do they get treated better than me?

In addition to the institutional biases listed above, many of the experiences I am more incensed about come from just doing my job.

In some instances, even before I get to do my job.

I can’t even count the amount of times I’ve lost an opportunity or position to a white colleague who may be good at their job, but is clearly less qualified and/or has less experience than me. I remember I spoke up about this once, and someone told me that my white colleague was simply ‘more charismatic’ than me.

This happens too whenever I play alongside white colleagues in chamber ensembles, whether it’s for events or concert performances. I'm always ignored or given the bare minimum, while my white colleagues are lavished with praise and feature in magazine reviews, interviews, photos and awards.

I vividly remember playing with a well-known chamber quartet in an equal role during their concert (all four members were white). I’d prepared the music and setup plans very thoroughly, I came on time to all rehearsals and played the performance more or less as expected. One of the quartet members' setups wasn't even ready during the dress rehearsal. Despite this, the predominantly white audience would always go up to the quartet after the performance and praise all of them wildly, while either ignoring me or giving me a silent nod.

Australian? You aren’t one of us

I always find it hilarious when anyone hosts a concert of ‘Australian percussion music’ in universities or concert halls of Australia, and the result is always an all-white lineup of composers that are either Western art music minimalism ‘based on Indigenous culture’ or some contemporary new music work ‘challenging the ideas of sound’.

Here’s some facts - notice how percussion composers like myself and my friend Robert Oetomo (of Indonesian descent but is Australian) have statistically more popular works for percussion than most of these white ‘Australian percussion composers’, are purchased more regularly than these white composers' works and are featured on repertoire lists worldwide - yet we are never referred to as ‘Australian composers’, our music is never considered ‘Australian music’ and we never appear in Australian examination repertoire lists.

Many of the white percussion professionals in our community distance themselves from people like Robert and me, saying what I do with YouTube and my studio is not a ‘real percussion job’. Those people would comment on my earlier posts in percussion groups saying things like ‘you are trying too hard’, ‘I didn’t realise this was the Adam Tan overshares group’ and ‘do you really think anyone cares?’.

Yet, when their white colleagues were unable to get a ‘real percussion job’ and turned to small-scale side hustles like yoga, singing or personal training, they’d be widely applauded and praised by everyone as shining examples of ‘Australian percussionists’, and they would even get invited back regularly to do concerts and masterclasses with the university ensembles as guest artists.

And now, those same white percussionists are the same people to message me asking them for help getting an instrument, or if I know anything about where to get a discount.

I guess we just don’t ‘look the part’.

It doesn’t have to be difficult

So that’s just a small collection of my experiences growing up.

I’m definitely aware that others may have it even worse than me and I know I have privilege too outside of being a POC. I’m grateful to have a loving family and great friends who have supported me throughout all of these struggles.

I hope what I've shared with you today will help dispel the myth perpetuated above of 'there is no bias in the percussion world'.

If after reading this, your first thought is ‘wow, he’s using the race card’/’way to victimise yourself’, then we will have to disagree today.

But if you’re looking to be part of what can be positive change for everyone, then start small. Support your BIPOC colleagues in their activities and pursuits, shop at businesses and brands that are run by BIPOC, donate to BIPOC charities and victims of race hate. Play music written by BIPOC composers.

If you’re white, it should be clear that this post is definitely not an attack on white people. Many of the white people I know are loving, caring people who have made efforts to be fair and just towards me in professional and personal life, and I’m grateful for them. But if there’s ever a time where a white person’s mistakes are pointed out, hold them accountable and make an effort. It means a lot to see those who recognise their privilege stand alongside us.

Embrace the idea of intersectionality and understand that everyone comes into this world with different privileges and levels of access, and it’s important to acknowledge these differences and work on them so we can grow together as a community.

We just want a fair go, that’s all.

Some additional reading if you're interested in learning more:

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