Monday, July 20, 2020

Theatre, Covid-19, and White Supremacy

Dear American Theatre,


On, June 3rd, at an online theatre conference, a prompt was given to the tune of, “What can we learn from Covid-19 to reopen our theatres, with an attention and focus to dismantling White supremacy and anti-Blackness?”


The breakout room I was in was a microcosm of our industry, with six white men, one Black woman, and me, a queer Asian American cisgender male with an invisible disability standing on the unceded land of the Ohlone people.

I won’t get into the details of how the room’s power dynamics unfolded, but rather how that dynamic led me to an answer.


But first, I want to acknowledge, we are still at a time of great civil unrest. #BlackLivesMatter and will continue to matter, until police brutality stops and White supremacy is extracted out of our nation’s culture.


So, what can Covid-19 teach us about our theatre industry; centering the dismantling of White supremacy and anti-Blackness, as well as uplifting Black and Indigenous folx, and other PoC voices?

Answer: White supremacy--is a virus, and anti-Blackness is a symptom. Racism, White exceptionalism, unconscious bias, fragility, toxic masculinity, assimilation, and so many more manifestations of oppression are all symptoms of this disease. And we are all infected. White, Black, Asian, Cis, Trans, Hetero, Queer, disabled, rich, poor, a virus does not discriminate.


I’m sorry. If you grew up in a Westernized society, if you consumed Western media, were educated in a Westernized school, engaged in a Westernized social gathering, walked down a Westernized street; then you have been exposed to White supremacy--and you have touched your face, your eyes, your mouth--and you are infected.

Now, this disease doesn’t affect everyone the same. Black and Indigenous folx have a massively compromised immune system, because their thymus gland has been working overtime since they were born, fighting the infection internally and externally on a daily basis.


The harmful effects of these symptoms? Pain, shortness of breath, fever, delusion, nausea, vomiting, insomnia, depression, anxiety, a sore throat from screaming and crying, mental and emotional trauma, difficulty walking, difficulty breathing, difficulty living--death!

Now am I talking about Covid-19 or am I talking about White supremacy?

White folx and People of Color, if you are not displaying those harmful effects, it does not mean you are not infected, it just means you’re asymptomatic. And you might be carrying a strain that is more dangerous for others, because you have allowed that virus to grow, and mutate in your body.


Without taking the safety precautions of washing your hands regularly with a privilege check, wearing the mask of education, taking anti-racist social distancing precautions, applying the anti-bacterial gel of transformative justice, you have unknowingly spread a dangerous strain--coughing micro aggressions, sneezing macro aggressions, shaking gaslighting hands, leaving droplets of triggered traumas, recycling the air of racism. I have been taking those safety precautions. Some of us have been taking those safety precautions. And unless you have been doing these things as well, I can’t safely be in a room with you. AND, I can’t assume you're taking those necessary precautions, because for some of you, you just got your test results. So, you need to PROVE to me you will prioritize our safety before I meet with you, before I begin an artistic collaboration with you.


How does that affect the theatre? Well, our buildings are infected, our theatres are infected, our classrooms, our textbooks, our rehearsal halls, our audiences, our artists, are all infected. There is an outbreak of White Supremacy and the state--of theatre--is infected. And as we look towards reopening, let us take the steps of prepping are spaces to fight Covid-19 and White Supremacy.


But first, let’s talk about getting an accurate diagnosis. Right now, I’m just playing the role of journalist, I’ve looked at the data, consulted with scientists, and I’m reporting, this virus exists, and we’re all infected. But what strain do YOU have? What are YOUR symptoms? How do you diagnose YOUR White Supremacy?

Don’t just turn to someone else who is infected and ask. And don’t turn to the sickest and weakest and ask; just because their vulnerability to this virus is apparent, and the effects of it are hitting them the hardest, does not make them infectious disease experts. Don’t just go see your “Black” friend.

Perhaps you think you just have a mild strand, and you can educate yourself with books written by medical professionals, like White Fragility, which is a whole ‘nother problem for another time, but anyways. Or check out the resources of a medical lab such as artEquity, consultant webMD or Huffington post, Teen Vogue, (but be cautious, like webMD, you can accidentally misinterpret your symptoms). Approach all these things with the same critical thought you give to diagnosing a personal illness, what are the credentials of those you are researching?

If you have the time, capacity, and funds, consult an expert--that you should be compensating. See a qualified nurse who has been practicing social justice work, visit a doctor who is steeped in EDI education and has an established practice. Yes, they’re also infected, but they’re knowledgeable enough on how to diagnose your illness, while keeping their symptoms at bay and taking precautions to avoid spreading the disease. They can work with you to create a plan to minimize the spread of your infection. And for those who are experiencing painful symptoms, they can offer treatment on your path to recovery.

To be clear, I’m not saying you should dismiss the experience of those who have been affected by the virus the most. Survivors of White supremacy are experts of their experience, not on diagnoses and treatment.


Speaking of seeking treatment:

Be cautious of taking the meds prescribed to someone else. They’re probably helpful, but everyone should be working with their medical team to ensure the right meds and right doses are being prescribed specific to your case. You might not be ready for surgery. You may not be ready to discuss how your “innocent” question of “but do they actually live there?” is steeped in White supremacy and anti-Blackness. Because Black people have to disproportionately prove their belonging to a space more than White folx. You may still need to take your “White privilege is real” pills.

Recognize, some over the counter drugs may simply suppress the symptoms, but not battle the virus. The #BlackLivesMatter’s statement is a cough syrup. The safety pin is there to reduce your fever but the infection is still there and you may still be spreading it.

Be weary of the nurse in training--those who think they’re ready to draw your blood but are only trained to take your temperature. They can try to help, but may cause harm. Be leery of the webMD expert, or the snake oil dealer. All potentially good resources of information, but still you need experts from different schools of thought to properly treat what ails you.

But like most illnesses we know there are some good general treatments and habits that will benefit everyone. Exercise, vitamins, sleep: Unconscious bias training, anti-Racist education, Decoded videos. And there are strong support groups for those in recovery. Seek those out that are led by a trained facilitator.

Now, perhaps you have a good friend who is a doctor or a nurse. Take them out for a meal (or, due to Covid-19, an at home delivery), get a free consultation, and listen. And, if you trust this person enough to seek their advice, don’t tell them they’re misdiagnosing you.


Okay, so we have this pandemic--Covid-19--White Supremacy. How do we deal with it so we can gather again, safely?

While I’m hear, let me lend you some of my expertise: What does spread-prevention and treatment look like? Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, Justice?


What does this look like in the theatre? Is diversity a cure? For our industry, a lack of representation is a symptom. “Diversity” is hydration, it’s necessary but doesn’t get to the core of the illness. Sticking the bodies of People of Color into theatres, offices, rehearsal halls, stages, classrooms that are infected without proper cleaning, and with artists and audiences that are also infected and not practicing safety precautions? That exposes those who are most vulnerable to more dangerous strands. It’s like hydrating or cleaning with infected water. It compounds the sickness.


What about inclusion? That’s the cleaning, the “wear your mask” signs, the “wash your hands” education. For those who are most vulnerable, how are places and people being prepped for their arrival? Your boardroom, your faculty, your artists, your audiences who may be asymptomatic to the harmful effects--should not be inviting the most vulnerable into your spaces unless the asymptomatic know they have to use proper safety precautions. Regular hand washing, social distancing, disinfecting surfaces, wearing personal protective equipment. It’s the unconscious bias training, the community guidelines, the anti-racist work. That’s how you make vulnerable people feel included, you let them know that you are aware of the disease, you are aware of those who are infected, AND that you are doing everything you can to reduce the risk of additional exposure and harm upon contact. That’s inclusion.

Welcoming vulnerable populations shouldn’t seem like a burden, it should be the default safety of everyone.


What about Equity? Equity is an acknowledgment of our reality, that the most vulnerable actually need MORE support. It is an acknowledgement that not everyone is inclusive. Not everyone believes in science. There are deniers of Covid-19, there are deniers of the death rate, there are people not wearing their mask, there are people who want to open up too soon when there is not enough education on the dangers of this virus to the most vulnerable. Not everyone is taking precautionary steps to reduce risk to others.

This acknowledgment for Equity, also means knowing asymptomatic people have more time, energy, and access. They have the ability to expose themselves to untreated, disease-ridden areas without further harm to themselves, and they get to reap the benefits of accessing those areas. Through herd immunity, they can go to the beach, they can go to the pool party, to in-person classes, to get their nails done, their haircut, to sporting events; enjoying the pleasures and privileges of rest, relaxation, education, and social interaction, without harmful effects. They get a slight fever, but they don’t need a ventilator.

Equity means, if you have the privilege of a strong immune system, you are spending your time and energy to do grocery shopping for the immunocompromised, you are educating other people on social distancing and safety precautions, you are utilizing your privilege of health and immunity and the benefits that it grants to you, to distribute access and needs to the vulnerable. True equity is recognizing this imbalance, and using your privilege to correct it, knowing your exposure to more harm pales in comparison to those at high risk.

Theatre leadership, you are the governors deciding how to manage and open up your state. Dividing the resources of your theatres equitably to serve your entire community. When you provide commissions to writers of color, hire artists of color, make performance accessible to those who are in need, please do the labor to hold other healthy folx accountable for possibly exposing those vulnerable to White supremacy to a dangerous strand of the disease. Know that other spaces aren’t inviting them in because it’s “too much work.” Know when a vulnerable person walks into your space, even if you have cleaned your space, they have walked in from a world that has not. So they will need more resources, more support, more mentorship, more guidance; AND because you’ve reaped the benefits of a healthy immune system that has gotten you to your position, you should provide those things. But don’t disingenuously ask, offer meaningful support and change; and stand with those who have been marginalized. Do not force YOUR recovery plan; discover with their needs and provide. Some of us have been seeing our doctors, and we know when we need additional support, but historically, you’ve been washing your hands for 5 seconds, when we asked for 20 we got push-back. So let us know you’re ready to sing Happy Birthday twice. In fact, go further. Some of us may not yet be diagnosed, or even misdiagnosed, so you--as the governors of the field--must recognize when someone is sicker than they appear, and put the safety measure of support into place, using the benefits you’ve reaped from your privilege.


So how about a vaccine? Justice is the scientific research leading us down the path to a vaccine, and we’re on a long road. Destroying this disease by dismantling the systems that make the weak weaker and the strong stronger. Stepping above prevention and healing, and moving towards the eradication of the disease entirely! Will the American Theatre invest in the vaccine to White supremacy? Will we invest in justice? Not as quickly as the world will find the vaccine to Covid-19. The vaccine to White Supremacy will take a life-time because, remember, there are anti-vaxxers out there and they’re in our industry.


Everyone, let’s educate ourselves on the value of science and our medical professionals. Take the same time and resources we spend on trying to re-opening through Covid-19, and invest in the eradication of White supremacy and anti-Blackness, so we eventually safely gather in theatres ALL together. Not everyone is affected by this pandemic in the same ways. And not everyone is affected by White supremacy in the same ways. But fighting them both will require collective thought, action, and work. So, let’s get to it.


Some resources:

Claudia Alick - Calling Up Justice: