Silk Road Rising, a Chicago theater company rooted in Asian, Middle Eastern and Muslim experiences, has re-released a 2012 film that is newly relevant during the coronavirus pandemic. Jamil Khoury, one of Silk Road’s founders, along with a filmmaker colleague, created Not Quite White, a short documentary that addresses hurdles faced by non-whites in the United States. That film, now available for free viewing, is particularly relevant today because of the countless examples of racist attacks against Asian Americans.
Last month in The New Yorker, Ed Park wrote about the practical and emotional toll that the coronavirus epidemic was taking on his life in New York City. Park, a Korean American, recalls the mounting anxieties he faced as the virus’ spread began to dismantle his daily life in small, but incremental ways. A politely skipped brunch here, a cancelled trip there—but a pivotal moment occurred when Park’s wife asked him for a ride home:
For the first time ever, I drive to my wife’s office to pick her up after work. She usually takes a cab or the subway. But she wants to minimize the health risks—she’s a physician—and she says she can feel something in the atmosphere, a mounting dislike of Asians.
The virus’ origins have been traced to the city of Wuhan in Central China, where experts believe it first transferred to humans in an open-air market. Since the first case in December, COVID-19 has spread across the globe, halting daily life for millions of people, and effectively shutting down most major economies. But along with the virus, Asian Americans are concurrently experiencing an alarming rise in anti-Asian discrimination—from verbal assaults, to being spit on and physically attacked.
In his New Yorker story, Park recounts an incident on the way to his office, where a young African American man yelled at him, called him a “Chinese motherfucker” and profanely demanded Park leave him alone so as to not get the man “sick.”
It’s a dispiriting, terrifying reality that is playing out not only in the pandemic’s American epicenter of New York City, but in cities throughout the United States, including Chicago—a recent report from NPR says that Illinois is experiencing the third most cases of anti-Asian discrimination in the nation, behind only New York and California.
Some have blamed President Trump’s categorization of COVID-19 as “the Chinese virus” as one cause of the uptick in anti-Asian discrimination. (The president has since stopped using the term, though for many Americans, the damage was already done.) But, this country has a long history of racism towards those of Asian descent, a history that has extended bigotry and hatred to people of all races and ethnicities for seemingly one reason—the group in question is not quite white. Germans, Irish, Jews, Italians, Greeks as well as Asians, African Americans, Muslims and Hispanics were affected.
Jamil Khoury, artistic director of Silk Road Rising, has been interrogating the idea of “whiteness” throughout his career as playwright and director. The company’s mission, according to the theater’s website, is to “produce [playwrights that] hail from the Asian American and Middle Eastern American communities about which they write.”
In 2012, in conjunction with his own play WASP: White Arab Slovak Pole, Khoury, along with filmmaker Stephen Combs, produced the short documentary Not Quite White, which investigated the hurdles that many non-whites faced while trying to establish themselves as citizens and participants of American society. Along with interviews from Chicago academics about the historical racism in this country, the film also includes reflections from Khoury on his personal experiences of being an Arab American with light skin.
The film tackles many issues that still flood headlines today—white privilege, systemic racism, anti-immigrant policies—and Khoury folds in moments from his play WASP to highlight the instances of casual discrimination that non-whites face in everyday life. And since the release of the film, the waters have only become murkier. In a statement from 2017, Khoury explained:
When I first wrote this video essay, I understood my racial identity as existing along a ‘not quite white’ spectrum. And yet, as a beneficiary of white privilege and status, I believed it important to reference myself as white several times throughout the essay. However, this distinction felt then as it feels now: dishonest and ahistorical. Just as referring to myself as a person of color feels dishonest.
And in the context of the COVID-19 crisis, the issue of “whiteness” (and the privilege that accompanies it) is playing out not only in the discrimination against Asian Americans, but also in the heartbreaking statistics being released as the virus continues to take lives. According to the Chicago Tribune, African Americans are dying at a rate six times greater than their white counterparts.
Not Quite White was released eight years ago, but it remains an important reminder of the pervasive nature of discrimination, and how the small violences perpetrated by society become ever more heightened and dangerous during times of crisis. In an email to patrons, Silk Road Rising says:
We believe [Not Quite White] is as relevant today, if not more so, than it was in 2012. Therefore, we’re choosing to share it with our Silk Road Rising community in hopes that it inspires reflection, sharing, and conversation during this period of self-quarantine.
You can watch the 24-minute documentary here and learn more about the efforts being made by the theater community to address anti-Asian discrimination in Chicago and beyond in this piece from American Theatre Magazine.
Theater artists and filmmakers have, throughout the history of our country, helped society address and process the great moments of political and social strife. During this time of isolation, when work has been halted, theaters have been shuttered, cinemas have been closed, we as a collective have had to understand new ways to connect and digest the incredible situation we are all faced with. The movies will come back, the theaters will re-open, but until then, we must all do what we can to continue the conversation, and support the artists and institutions that make our country, and especially our city of Chicago, such a vital, vibrant, essential place in the free world.