Why “Whiteness on Fire?”

Kyoung’s Pacific Beat’s 2023-2024 season kicks off September 21st with a virtual gathering via Zoom called “Whiteness on Fire: Where are we Now?” But before I go on, let me tell you a story of where I am now.
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I am in Flatbush, Brooklyn, in a neighborhood called Midwood. Midwood is a predominantly Haitian-American and West Indian community; the Jamaican food here is great. Midwood is where you’ll find powerful people, like Rodneysse Bichotte, a NY State Assembly member who has passed laws to address inequities Black and women of color experience due to their race in the medical system, and laws that decriminalized surrogacy, so all families – including queer ones – have the option to start their families with the help of surrogates.

I’m a 15 minute drive from Sheepshead Bay, home to my Burmese-American in-laws, who live in the third largest Chinatown in NYC, following the one in Manhattan and Sunset Park, which is where you might have seen us earlier this January for the screening of NERO. While Sheepshead Bay is tucked deep into Brooklyn, there’s great vitality in our Asian-American community here. These were the stomping grounds for artists like actress Lucy Liu.

In between Midwood and Sheepshead Bay, you’ll find an orthodox Jewish community that is very proud of its customs and faith. And this neighborhood is proud to be the childhood homes of progressive Jews like Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Senator Bernie Sanders.

We’re in a community of powerful people, but like for most of us, the past three years have been tough. As a peacemaking theater it was impossible for us to ignore the rise of violence we experienced during the pandemic. The NYPD reported two years ago a spike of 243% in hate-crimes, targeting Black, Asian, queer and trans people of color. Anti-Asian violence alone spiked 1,900%, and this violence impacted the most vulnerable in our communities, our elders and women. 

If you’ve seen our work, you know that we center the voices of predominantly queer, immigrant people of color. And you’ll also know that our work is for Black, Asian, queer and White folks alike. In fact, about a third of our audience is Asian, a third is Black, Latiné, another third is White and more than 65% of our community is queer. This is not a coincidence, our work and our audiences reflect our community.

This intersectionality matters, because when we launched our Whiteness on Fire series back in September 2020, we wanted to address white supremacy as it’s a major theme of our new work NERO. But as we worked with our community partners to address racialized violence, one of our community partners brought to our attention the immediate need to challenge the stories we’re being told by the media.

When the media started to report anti-Asian violence, we saw too often how Black aggressors attacked members of our community. But a national study of over 4,000 hate crimes across the country found that 89% of these crimes were perpetuated by white people. The reverse is also true. Last month, O’Shea Sibley, a queer, Black dancer was brutally stabbed and killed while vogueing in a local gas station in our neighborhood. One of our company members used to walk from home to this gas station to buy snacks. We are this close to the violence and we can’t be silent. When Sibley’s story was reported in the news, initial reports falsely claimed the attacker was Muslim, fueling Islamophobic sentiments that have been ongoing since 9/11 and the War on Terror – the war we’re exploring through our play NERO. 

Days later, our Mayor set the record straight and the attacker’s defense attorney described him as a “good ol Christian boy.” We can’t keep falling for the same old stories, we’re in a loop and something needs to change. People in our community are still afraid to go out and buy groceries, take the subway, or even pump gas at a gas station.

Whatever our differences may be, I hope you can agree that violence is not acceptable. No one should die for being different. So if you agree that we need to come together, break the boundaries that divide us, and pursue peaceful non-violent change with rigor, then I hope you’ll join us for Whiteness on Fire.

For those who’ve never joined us, our work is governed by a set of Community Agreements drafted by our Board to ensure a culture of safety, boundaries and consent. Having worked with queer folks of color for 10+ years, we also are aware that we can’t all afford to join public spaces and be out. Your privacy matters- only our internal staff of 3, including myself, has access to who we are. We protect the privacy of NYC policymakers, TV actors, and folks on the DL the same way. We’re not here to wear our official titles, we’re here to be in beloved community.

Our work used to be a bit more underground, but there’s an isolation and fear surrounding how we’re gathering, especially in the theater, so we’re going to make this gathering a bit more public and translate what we do in person to an online space so we can remain connected. 

This is the first of six events we’ll be hosting as part of our season, and we’ll be going to you in Queens, Downtown Brooklyn and the Bronx to meet y’all halfway for our live performances. Meanwhile, our gala and WEAVING HISTORIES, an event addressing community-care next Spring, will take place via Zoom.

Our season is free and open to all. You’ll be able to register online and the only thing we need to know is your email, name, and race, just in case we need to build affinity groups. Once you register online, you’ll get a unique Zoom link to our virtual gathering. That’ll make sure only those who have registered are able to be in space with us.

We’ll be announcing our guest speakers and more details about Whiteness on Fire in the next few days. But I wanted to take a moment to introduce you to our season and why we’re doing this work. Join us!

Together, we can re-imagine this cult of death and reinforce the community safety and collective care our communities need to co-create a culture of peace and non-violence.

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