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Correction to This Article
Donna Britt's Feb. 25 column should have stated that the Imani Winds concert on Thursday, March 3, will be held at the Mansion at Strathmore Hall, not the new concert hall.

When Life's Music Is Heard Only In Stereotype

By Donna Britt
Friday, February 25, 2005; Page B01

There's nothing more frustrating than people who think they know who you are.

Some are certain of what you "must" be thinking based on your gender. Others "know" your opinions and preferences in everything from music to politics to movies based on your age, color, income or Zip code.

On Thursday, Washington native Toyin Spellman will play her oboe at the spanking-new Strathmore concert hall with the classical quintet Imani Winds, whose CD "The Classical Underground" was just released. The group plays the classics, as well as modern compositions heavily influenced by jazz, African and Latino traditions.

But most people who meet Spellman and hear that she's a musician assume that she's "a singer or a jazz musician," she says.

Spellman is black, hip, youthful-looking -- so what could she know about Brahms?

Plenty. Her lifelong exposure to music began in her family's Brookland home, where there were "thousands of records; we listened to everything except country," she recalls. Add the classics that she explored with the D.C. Youth Orchestra, and Spellman's multicultural musicianship seems inevitable.

"When categories are broken down, it opens doors for people to develop in ways they wouldn't have before," Spellman, 32, explains.

But we love categories. Squeezing folks into them -- whether or not they fit -- gives us a false sense of security, control, even superiority.

But it's awful for those who get squeezed, as I was reminded recently after taking Internet commentator Matt Drudge to task for trying to scuttle comedian Chris Rock's appearance as host of Sunday's Oscars.

E-mail responses were almost perfectly divided between "You go, girl" Rock supporters and appalled, Rock-belongsunder-a-Rock Drudge fans, many of whom blithely -- and wrongly -- informed me of my political history, hidden motivations and feelings about dozens of unrelated issues.

Based solely on one column and a photo.

Several missives pronounced me misguided, hypocritical or merely, well, black. One sweet-natured respondent wrote that though Rock and Drudge matter, I was "an obscure nothing" who has a column "only due to [my] skin color." My favorite -- "you are the local news ho" -- was followed closely by those suggesting that I challenged Drudge only so I would be posted on his site.

In truth, nasty responses to columns are no less inherently valuable than complimentary ones. As lovely as it is to be praised, it can be instructive to be criticized -- as proved by several authors of chilly responses who became distinctly warmer after I engaged them.

"I'm just sick and tired of being portrayed [negatively] in the media," one reader explained. " . . . It seems that there is a media conspiracy to discredit anyone who is linked to the Republican Party."


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