Inclusiveness, and how to do it: A case study

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Last week, international barbershop had some big news: current International chorus champions, Music City Chorus from Nashville announced that they would no longer participate in Dixie District events while the District still kept that name. There have been ongoing discussions about the continued use of the Dixie label for this district over a number of years, and Music City Chorus’s decision came shortly after, and in response to, a decision to retain the name.

For those unfamiliar with the context of this, the Barbershop Harmony Society in the US and Canada is organised into a number of geographically-defined districts, each of which hold their own Conventions and educational events each year. These events both provide members the chance to be part of a musical community wider than their local chapters, and provide a qualification route to compete at International level. (‘International’ originally meant US and Canada, but now includes competitors from associate organisations from around the world.)

I’m assuming I don’t need to explain why people object to the name of ‘Dixie District’, but if you’re new to that discourse as well, I’ll refer you back to a couple of past blog posts to fill you in (here and here). I note in passing that Sweet Adelines International, the world's largest barbershop organisation for women, have reorganised their own regional structure, and in the process removed their former ‘Heart of Dixie’ region.

Clearly, Music City Chorus will have already participated in Dixie District events in order to have competed and won at International level, and as each International champion chorus takes a year out after winning, they were not due to compete again this year. So, in the first instance, the impact of this decision is to deprive the district of the glory of having the first international champions from the district for decades appear at their events during the year, as well as the revenue from ticket sales and registrations from the members of a large chorus.

The chorus themselves also lose out on the networking and camaraderie of participating in the wider barbershop community, though as International champions, they will also have opportunities to travel and perform beyond their home district, so this impact is perhaps in the first instance somewhat muted.

In the longer term, though, the impact is potentially to deprive the chorus itself of the opportunity to defend their title in 2025. This is clearly something of a gamble: the move is explicitly intended to put pressure on the district to change its name, but people have been asking for that for some years now to no avail. So there is a non-trivial chance that Music City Chorus will lose the chance to participate at International level for the foreseeable future.

And this of course is what makes the gesture powerful; people with high status and something to lose are putting themselves on the line for this point of principle. They are saying that it is more important to them to create a welcoming space for people who find the ‘Dixie’ label and its associations alienating (primarily people of colour, but also people from other marginalised groups who would see that label as a red flag for an unsafe environment) than to maintain their status within that particular in-group.

The willingness to sacrifice something that has clearly been very important to them is what makes this a principled gesture, rather than a merely manipulative one. They are exerting the power they have by virtue of their contest success, but they are also risking the loss of that power in the process.

The other thing that makes this decision exemplary is that it meets a clearly articulated need. People have been saying for years that the Dixie label is problematic, that it creates an overtly hostile environment for people of colour, and that it is in direct contradiction to the Everyone in Harmony strategic vision. The move hasn’t come out of nowhere, but emerges from having listened to what people of colour were saying about barbershop culture.

One might contrast that with the Everyone in Harmony approach to gender inclusiveness, which I critiqued when it was launched in 2017 for its lack of engagement with the people it claimed to benefit, and the parasitical zeal with which it anticipated the membership dues women would bring in as members.

This case study has clarified for me a couple of useful yardsticks to consider whether something is an act of allyship or appropriation. First: do I have any skin in this game? Am I risking anything that I value to stand with you, or am I hoping only to gain from the interaction? And second: whose needs I am primarily serving here? Do I have clear evidence that the people I seek to support want this, or am I doing this to feel better about myself?

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