How Being a Black Classical Musician has Driven Me to the Brink of Suicide Among These Times

By Dorthea Stephenson

I do not typically use my social media as a platform of activism, but I feel these times call for my voice to be heard among the rest. Whether you agree or not, is your decision. This is not a persuasive post; you are inclined to your decisions as I am to mine. I am simply using my account to tell my story, to give people another perspective of what my experiences are as an African-American woman living in a dysfunctional society.

Being black in the classical music world comes with a lot of implications, perhaps the biggest one being that the sense of belonging is little to none. I started when I was younger, and so I was still blissfully unaware of the staggering stares and silent judging that came with being a black musician. As I grew up in this world, I tried to ditch my identity in exchange for a chance to find a new one, one where I could finally belong to a community. It worked, or at least I thought it had. That veil of illusion quickly came crashing down as I realized I was simply choosing to ignore the problems I was constantly facing. Being a black musician means you constantly have to prove your worth; you are not given initial respect walking into any room, and you need to be better than all of your colleagues in order to garner half the respect, even though sometimes that in itself is not worthy. This is something I not only experience in classical music, but in my daily life as well. Always the underdog, I find my peers pleasantly surprised when I succeed, as if it were nothing short of a miracle. Self-confidence is an important asset to have in this world, and it plays a critical role in prosperity when an individual faces adversity. But perhaps that initial build up of self confidence comes from others instilling that initial confidence in ourselves, a luxury I have yet to experience.

One of the most painful experiences I still face trauma from was the constant exclusion from both the East Asian and White communities within the classical music community. I never fit the bill physically. We could have a million things in common, but the stark reality of the situation was that I wasn’t one of them, and I never would be. The parents spoke poorly of me, and always assumed the worst of me, and I could never figure out why. I wanted to believe that it was every reason except the truth. So I blamed myself. Blamed myself for every reason that allowed me to dismiss a stigmatic racism that I was facing. The truth for me at the time was that I couldn’t possibly ever be a good fit for anyone’s child, because the matter of the fact was that I was black.

A tarnished “Scarlet letter” I could never remove, I moved through the classical music world alone, absorbing scathing stares and the questionable glances from parents and children alike. Like myself, no one could understand my place in this world, and it was a confusing reality to accept. Everyone knew, including myself, that I didn’t belong. The first time I broke down was the week I made all-state. I had put so much time and work and when I finally made it, it was the first time in a long time I respected myself. This quickly became cascaded by the first rehearsal, where I was the only African American in a humongous orchestra. No friends, and no one I could relate to, it was the first of a long string of excruciating moments where I would break down from complete and utter loneliness. Not belonging in the classical music world was painful, and this pain became exacerbated by society as a whole. I am conditioned to feel ugly, to feel useless, to feel like every accomplishment I come by is because of my black status. I don’t know how many times I have been told black women are ugly, told I’ve only come by my accomplishments because of my status, told I’m not a “model minority”, told I would end up in jail, told that being black is not a struggle. Everything I have ever done, right or wrong, has been overshadowed by the fact that I am black.

There comes a time when music is no longer joy when there is no one to share it with. The marginalization doesn’t end, but my will to fight continuously shrinks as I face a lifetime of belittlement. The reality is that I will never be able to simply exist in this world without facing a lifetime of stigma and disgust over a life I didn’t choose…so why exist at all…the entirety of my heart goes out to Mr. Floyd and his family and friends and any of my brothers and sisters deeply affected by this incident. I don’t know if this was racism or not, but the thing is, we live in a world where race has become everything. Every injustice I have ever experienced on this very Earth has always been met with the question of racism at hand…a burden we cannot escape…


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