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Acknowledging identity, privilege, and oppression in music therapy


As clinical music therapy professionals who are goal- and solution-oriented, how much time do we spend considering our client’s experience outside the therapy room? How might taking the time to learn about a client’s multifaceted identity affect the therapeutic relationship? Furthermore, how do our own personal identities, beliefs, and experiences affect our relationships with clients? In answering these questions, we begin to scratch the surface of making our practice more intersectional.

Intersectionality is particularly important when considering the ways in which marginalized and oppressed identities are interlinked and how they create lived experiences that are different from those with privileged identities or “social statuses.”

Theories of intersectionality emerged from U.S. Black feminist and women of color activist communities who saw themselves omitted from dominant movements for social justice, including feminism that foregrounded White women’s issues, as well as civil rights activism focused on Black men’s experiences. The original metaphor of traffic in an intersection, coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, sought to describe how Black women’s identities often make them the target of multiple, simultaneous forms of oppression (e.g., racism and sexism).

But intersectionality goes far beyond merely describing how people embody multiple social identities—it helps us understand how people are differently situated in society because of those identities.

So, what does intersectionality have to do with music therapy? 

Essential documents in the field of music therapy highlight the importance of being a culturally responsive clinician. For example, the AMTA Professional Competencies indicates a music therapist must “demonstrate awareness of the influence of race, ethnicity, language, religion, marital status, sexual orientation, age, ability, socioeconomic status, or political affiliation on the therapeutic process.” Furthermore, music therapists must demonstrate knowledge of and skill in working with culturally diverse populations. Thus, whether intentionally acknowledged or not, dynamic systems of privilege and oppression play a role in the therapeutic process and client-therapist relationship.

Because these facets of identity consist of interwoven relationships, consideration of intersectionality is crucial to meet professional standards of practice. By acknowledging the interconnected pieces of an individual’s identity, we move away from the danger of creating harmful stereotypes or neglecting components of an individual’s identity that play crucial roles in the way they move through the world.

Furthermore, as a profession we must consider the message our field may be sending if the identities of underrepresented and marginalized individuals are not reflected in the music therapists that serve them.

How can we commit to intersectionality?

Sociocultural considerations have historically been supplemental concerns within clinical research and practice; however, they really belong at the core. For example, undergraduate music therapy programs have traditionally included one course on multicultural music with the goal of helping students move towards cultural competency. Conversely, a truly intersectional approach would acknowledge that cultural differences extend far beyond just music and should be woven throughout the curriculum. Additionally, intersectional training would be sensitive to who is producing and represented in the curriculum and would insist upon inclusion of research done by and about individuals with marginalized identities (i.e., scholarship produced by and for people of color, individuals with disabilities, LGBTQ+ people, etc.).

Furthermore, the idea of becoming culturally responsive (rather than culturally competent,) would be viewed as a life-long process of continual self-reflection and critical engagement with cultures that differ from one’s own versus, not a skill to be mastered.

Attending to intersectionality requires we start listening to and mainstreaming voices that have been ignored in theory and research. These unheard voices are scholars of feminist theory, disability studies, critical race theory, queer theory, and burgeoning fields like transgender studies.

Incorporating principles of critical theories in music therapy opens possibilities for progressive models of practice, such as “queer music therapy.” Even further, applying such approaches should involve continuous evaluation and refining. As in our discussion of striving toward continuous self-reflection and critical engagement with intersectionality in training and practice, research must be held to the same standard.

Engaging with intersectionality

It is essential for music therapists to actively engage with intersectionality in research and practice, with the ultimate goal of improving outcomes for all our clients. The only way for intersectionality theory to create any real change is to learn how to apply what we learn and begin to think more critically about putting intersectional principles into action.

This can often be the most intimidating piece of working to improve our practice because it requires a great deal of cultural responsiveness, self-reflexivity, humility, vulnerability, and a willingness to unequivocally advocate for underrepresented voices within our client base and profession.

However, the field of music therapy is due for a transformation—and it is likely not alone. Thus, here are some steps we’ve identified that clinicians and researchers can take in an effort to work towards the goal of moving towards more intersectional practice:

  • Read and engage with the texts of critical theory scholars and activists;
  • Start or join in critical dialogues with colleagues about how we can make the profession more representative of and affirming for members of marginalized and underrepresented groups;
  • Carry out and propel culturally responsive research, including through collaborations with members of underrepresented groups in the field; and
  • Insist upon anti-oppressive practice for marginalized clients.

Featured image credit: Photo by Daniel van Beek. Used with permission.

Recent Comments

  1. Erik Gans

    Music therapy is amazing, especially for those who have a hard time focusing on complex tasks. I hope intersectionality can help people in their extensive research and to achieve great goals.

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