An awkward silence. Some women turn towards each other and mutter hushed commentaries in Tswana. I look hopefully at my "translator", and wait. Eyes turn downward, faces look concerned and agitated. I feel tension building in the room, but I don't understand. I also get the feeling that no-one is about to let me in on what's happening. Right now it seems irrelevant that I have put so much thought into my plans for this session, irrelevant that I have a sense, still, that this session will be a good experience for all of us. At this point I feel completely isolated and angry at my inability to discern this language that is being spoken. In this room full of black Tswana speaking women, I feel so useless, so English…so white!
The women in this group were the mothers or grandmothers of a group of boys - young offenders I would commence music therapy sessions with the following week as part of their diversion programme. I had introduced the music therapy programme to the entire group – boys and caregivers, and the boys then left to complete questionnaires required for research purposes. As I was keen to include the caregivers as much as possible in the music therapy process, I had suggested that they could attend a single music therapy session while they waited for their sons. This session would offer them an experience of what the boys would be doing each week at the clinic. Participation was voluntary. Once I had explained, one of the women translated my offer into Tswana.
I had assumed this offer would be warmly received. It was an alternative to sitting in the waiting room with little to do. Why did these women then look so concerned and unhappy? If they did not want to participate, why didn't they let me know?
After some time, and much discussion in Tswana, I was informed of the problem. My offer, even though it was translated, had been misunderstood. The women understood that they had to come to music therapy sessions with their sons every week. Most were worried about losing their jobs as a result of this weekly commitment, and some could not afford to travel to the clinic each week. Once my offer was made clear to all and concerns were allayed, I was told by the translator that, yes, everyone would like to make music. Thus I began the session, with all the women in attendance. Still, I didn't sense much enthusiasm, interest or even curiosity from the group, but rather wariness. As I began the first activity, I clearly remember feeling acutely aware of the continuing awkwardness that had settled between me and these women. I also remember my awareness of my white identity, and all that this implied within this particular context.
In his article, "Reflections on Being a Music Therapist and Gay Man", Colin Lee (2008) discusses the importance of acknowledging our identity within the therapeutic context. He suggests that:
To be authentic as a therapist means to know who you really are fully and honestly. To be authentic in the therapeutic relationship means to know and understand who you are in relation to the needs of the client. To be authentic in clinical music making means knowing your relationship to music, the client's musical preferences and needs and how this affects the direction and potential outcome of the therapy. If am authentic on all of these levels then I can know and understand the needs of my clients as well as being true to myself.
As much as we may loathe discussing race in South Africa, whilst inequalities that continue to separate black and white remain (such as the high and increasing economic inequality in South Africa, with white people benefitting from the improving economy more than black people (Blandy, 2009)) we cannot ignore these aspects of our identities. Further, whilst the music therapy profession in this country remains entirely white, race is an important issue to consider.
It is uncomfortable to fully and honestly know my collective identity as a white South African, along with the privileges, wealth and resources that this identity has afforded me. It is uncomfortable to honestly accept that the past of this country, for the most part, places me on the side of the oppressor. It is even more uncomfortable to know this in relation to what the black identity of the women in this group has afforded each one of them. Some have little educational qualifications, some are unemployed. Those who have jobs are mostly domestic workers earning a minimal wage, probably working for white employers. No matter how uncomfortable it may be, however, in my work with this group I embody not only an identity of being a musician, therapist or woman. I am also a white person and embody what it means, for each group member present, to be white. To be authentic as a therapist in this context requires acknowledging how this part of my identity can affect my work.
There are many challenges that come with working as a white therapist with black clients such as these women. The most apparent issue in this case was the misunderstanding between myself and others in the group. This misunderstanding and the awkwardness that followed highlighted my separateness from these women. I did not understand their language, nor did they understand mine. I was also separated from the group in terms of our contrary understandings and experiences of wealth and poverty, employment, rights, culture, history and even music.
My identity within this group presented further challenges. Ndebele (2001) comments that "perhaps the most serious manifestations of racism on its victims is how much they may have internalized it to the extent they may continue to exhibit low self-esteem long after the institutionalized forms of racism which induced this negative self-concept have disappeared." It took some time before the group complained or queried the request that they were expected to attend weekly music therapy sessions, though their anxiety was immediately clear. Whilst the hesitation in this group may have been due to a difficulty to express their queries in English, I had to consider the possibility that some women may not have felt they had a right to challenge my authority. As a white person I represent to this group someone who, in the past, held more rights, power and authority than a black person because of my race. Those who have internalized such a worldview, or who may still be oppressed by others, may find it difficult to approach or challenge me. At the same time I would need to be very careful not to encourage these worldviews by holding all the power in this group.
Despite giving their consent to participate in a music therapy session, I did not sense much enthusiasm from the group. This presented yet another challenge. I had to consider that perhaps these women really did not want to make music with me at all. Many black people echo the sentiments of the black consciousness leader, Steve Biko (1977), saying: “The blacks are tired of standing at the touchlines to witness a game that they should be playing. They want to do things for themselves and all by themselves.” Why should these women participate in this session, run by a white person? What did I, as a white musician understand about their music, or even their relationship to music? What skills exactly, was I bringing to this clinic, that none of the other black staff members, or perhaps a black musician, could offer?
The obstacles, misunderstandings and limitations I experienced in working with this particular group were a reminder of many other confusing moments in my work as a white therapist with black South Africans. The moment highlighted once more the impact of my white identity on my work, and how this can at times limit what I hope to achieve. I have often grappled with thoughts about whether I, as a white music therapist, will be able to utilize my skills fully within this country.
In this particular instance, this group of Tswana women and I were able to enjoy a surprisingly meaningful session together. The fact that I was white may have been a limiting factor, or posed challenges for us to overcome. But it did not prevent our group from using this space and time to relax and enjoy expressing ourselves through music - something that many women in this group rarely had time for. The chasm between white and black did not prevent us from drawing together around what we could share in music, or in a few translated words. We shared our cares for the boys who would start music therapy the following week, the joys and trials of being a woman, a parent, our humanity. Whilst race is an important part of our identity to consider, "race is an unpredictable and felt everyday transaction, not an apocalypse." (Dodd, 2009).
As a new group of (white) music therapy students move towards graduating and entering the profession in South Africa, they have begun discussions and wondered about employment possibilities and what it's like to work as a music therapist in this country. Although it is not easy to be a white music therapist in South Africa, I hope these students will be ready to explore what opportunities are available with sensitivity and creativity. In order to achieve this, I hope that, firstly, all of these students will fully acknowledge the implications of their white identity and the impact this identity may have in the various contexts in which they work. Secondly, I hope those in the student group will be willing to take risks – to risk being misunderstood and challenged, to risk having to change how we work significantly or even being classed as irrelevant and excluded from certain contexts.
Thirdly, I hope that some of these music therapy students will be willing to partner others in this country - to offer skills to and learn from people of different race groups, people with different perceptions about healing, music and therapy. My own experiences of working as a white therapist is that I cannot do this work alone, but need to partner others. I am grateful to the many black colleagues – social workers, counsellors and musicians - I have been privileged to share my music therapy sessions with in different capacities. I have facilitated sessions in partnership with others who serve as translators, who can facilitate verbal group discussions or song-writing processes in other languages, who honestly and openly discuss sessions with me, offering important insights. There are also those who have run groups – teaching drumming or musical skills, whilst I offer my music therapy skills and ideas to these group facilitators when dealing with difficult group dynamics.
If we are willing to acknowledge our identity as white music therapists, take risks and partner others in our work, there are endless unexplored possibilities in South Africa for our profession. However, if it is comfort we seek, our country may have few work opportunities to offer.
Biko, S. (1977). Steve Biko Quotes. South Africa. Retrieved October 18, 2009 from http://www.southafrica.to/people/Quotes/SteveBiko/SteveBiko.htm
Blandy, F. (2009) The Rich Getting Richer. Iafrica.com. Retrieved October 26, 2009, from http://business.iafrica.com/footer/1954386.htm
Dodd, A. (2009). A Whiter Shade of Pale. Mail & Guardian Online. Retrieved October 13, 2009 from http://www.mg.co.za/article/2009-09-28-a-whiter-shade-of-pale
Lee, C. (2008). Reflections on Being a Music Therapist and a Gay Man. Voices: A World Forum for Music Therapy. Retrieved October 18, 2009, from http://www.voices.no/mainissues/mi40008000278.php
Ndebele, N.S. (2001). The Virus of Victimhood. The Great Debate: A Special Supplement Based on Extracts from Essays Appearing in "Reflections in Prison." iol. Retrieved October 22, 2009 at http://www.iol.co.za/html/news/reflections/page11.php
Oosthuizen, Helen (2009). Some Thoughts on Being a White Music Therapist. Voices: A World Forum for Music Therapy. Retrieved May 15, 2013, from http://testvoices.uib.no/?q=coloosthuizen021109