Contesting Categories

by Jamil Khoury

in Diversity & Inclusion

Post image for Contesting Categories

(This post is a part of the Diversity & Inclusion blog salon led by Online Curator Jacqueline E. Lawton. Check out further Diversity & Inclusion interviews on Jacqueline’s blog. If you are interested in participating in this or any other Circle blog salon, email Gus Schulenburg.)

Diversity & Inclusion blog salon: The Role of Allies

Context: According to Reverend Dr. Andrea Ayvazian (Senior Pastor of the Haydenville Congregational Church), an ally is a member of a dominant group in our society who works to dismantle any form of oppression from which she or he receives the benefit. Allied behavior means taking personal responsibility for the changes we know are needed in our society, and so often ignore or leave to others to deal with. Allied behavior is intentional, overt, consistent activity that challenges prevailing patterns of oppression, makes privileges that are so often invisible visible, and facilitates the empowerment of persons targeted by oppression.

JACQUELINE LAWTON: In our work as allies, we must begin by addressing our own privilege and prejudice. Where are you in this process? What are some areas where you struggle?

JAMIL KHOURY:  As a tall, white, middle class, able bodied, educated man I am afforded a degree of mobility, bodily integrity, access, and benefit of the doubt routinely denied to women, people of color, and disabled people.  And yet my name, my Arabness, my presumed Muslimness, my brown husband, my queerness, my art, my feminism, my anti-racism, my “contentious relationship” with capitalism, my struggles with food, all complicate and depreciate any “All American maleness” ascribed to me at first sight.  So while whiteness and maleness are indeed my great benefactors, my “trump card,” they are also contested categories for me.  I belong to communities that are marginalized, despised, oppressed, and colonized.  Yet I am often assumed to be an oppressor and a colonizer.  That dichotomy informs and influences my world view.  The fact that I am told I do not “look like” the people with whom I identify, and yet am conscious of the struggles we face, is perhaps one reason I gravitate towards ally work.  Even amongst “my own” I am often perceived to be an ally, particularly when drawing parallels with other people’s struggles.

Perhaps my challenge is in determining how best to leverage the very privileges I’m seeking to universalize, while not wielding privilege over those I am allying with.   As for the process of unlearning my own internalized “isms,” particularly my own racism, sexism, and classism, that is probably a lifelong pursuit.  By virtue of being an American, I am the progeny of white supremacy and have been conditioned accordingly.  Anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism may have been the messages at home, but dominant culture taught me otherwise.  Which means I need to self-examine.  Always.  We all do. Socrates said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” I think he was spot on.   As for being an effective ally, integrity, humility, introspection and deference are essential.   Respect and transparency are key. The communities we ally with deserve nothing less from us.

JL: In our work as allies, it is necessary to take a stand when groups are targeted with unjust treatment. As a theatre artist, can you share an experience where you stood in support and solidarity with someone who was unfairly blamed, targeted, ignored or left without resources? Or can you talk about when someone stood in support or solidarity of you?

JK:  Silk Road Rising, the theatre company I co-founded with my life partner, Malik Gillani, was founded in response to the attacks of September 11, 2001, and the anti-Arab and anti-Muslim backlash that immediately ensured.  We use live theatre and video to tell universal stories through uniquely Asian American and Middle Eastern American lenses.  Our aim has been to make Chicago’s stages more representative, and to expand what we call the American story.  No one has ever accused us of lacking ambition!

It can be said that anti-racism is etched in our company’s DNA.  We actively combat racism against Arabs, Asians, and Muslims, and we combat racism within our Arab, Asian, and Muslim communities.  Recently, a prominent Chicago theatre critic reviewed a production of ours in which she endorsed racial profiling of Arab and Muslim men.  In vigorously protesting her racist politics, we received an outpouring of sympathy and support from people across the country.   That is what solidarity looks like!

JL: In our work as allies, it’s important that we support theatre artists and organizations that aren’t at the center of mainstream culture. In what ways have you done or encouraged others to do this?

JK:  Silk Road Rising is a playwright-centric theatre.  We believe that representation begins at home and that self-representation is a fundamental artistic right.  We also believe it imperative that Asian Americans and Middle Eastern Americans seize the mantle of our own representation and control our own means of cultural production.  Thus, we advocate for playwrights, particularly playwrights of Silk Road backgrounds.

But I also recognize that what I just argued, and what propelled us to create Silk Road Rising in the first place, are multicultural politics.  And multicultural politics are problematic politics because they operate within the framework of white supremacy.  Multiculturalism swaps biological determinism for cultural determinism, celebrates our cultural “differences,” while safeguarding the economic and political power of white elites.  It took us time to figure that out.  Sadly, multiculturalism is all the rage amongst liberals.   Basically what we are doing is laying claim to resources, to “our” slice of the white pie, and allowing ourselves to be pit against other communities of color in vying for said resources.  Those are the terms we are forced to swallow in order to compete for funding.  Beg for your crumbs.  Which raises the question, are we challenging white supremacy or bowing to it.  It is the Faustian bargain faced by all anti-racist arts organization and the irony is devastating.

In resistance to this bargain, we consciously refuse to engage “culturally specific” stories that place our communities in silos or narrative ghettoes.  We support artists and organizations that subvert mainstream culture by illuminating cultures as they intersect, overlap, collide, merge; stories that dramatize change as it occurs within and between cultures.   We want artists to define culture on their own terms.  Not as something that is static or fixed, but as something dynamic and fluid and evolutionary.  In fact, we want theatre artists to move beyond notions of mainstream culture altogether.

JL: In our work as allies, it’s important that we find and create opportunities to promote the leadership of people in groups that traditionally don’t take leadership positions. Can you share an experience where you were able to do this or where this was done for you?

JK:  Malik and I like to call ourselves “immigrants” to the theatre, as we did not originally “come from” theatre.  That said, ours is not your traditional assimilationist trajectory, in that we are forever trying to reshape the sector in our own image!  Hubris aside, Chicago’s theatre community has been remarkably supportive in helping us ascend to leadership positions, and we in turn, are working to create opportunities for artists and administrators to also emerge as leaders.  We are particularly keen on developing leaders that will challenge attitudes within our communities that devalue and demean artistic vocations and careers.

JL: Knowing that the work of allies is a difficult, complex, and necessary, what resources have you found useful in your work? Who are you role models?

JK:  To be honest, the resources come in the form of inspiration and wisdom gleaned from the individuals and communities with which we interact.  Being an ally is ultimately learned through being an ally.  And it means sometimes feeling alienated, underappreciated, hurt, and dejected.  That is, until we remember it’s not all about us!

Who are our role models?  It may sound pollyanna, but I’d say anyone who’s helping the world heal.  Anyone who demonstrates courage in the face of adversity.  The people who insist on defining themselves, not being defined by others.

JL: What practical action steps would you recommend to others interested in serving as Allies for Diversity and Inclusion in the American Theatre?

JK:  At the risk of upsetting the apple cart, maybe we need to be talking less about diversity and inclusion and more about anti-racism.  I think that’s a big practical step.  Maybe we need to stop making whiteness the center of everything we do.  Maybe whiteness shouldn’t be the arbiter of this conversation any longer.  Maybe we need to think and act polyculturally instead of multiculturally.  Multiculturalism has run its course.  It was coopted by white supremacy and philanthropy and the “diversity industry” decades ago.  It has now become the problem.

Jamil Khoury is the Founding Artistic Director of Silk Road Rising. A theatre producer, essayist, playwright, and film maker, Khoury’s work explores questions of identity, citizenship, and Diaspora. He is currently writing the full length version of his play Mosque Alert, part of an online interactive new play development and civic engagement project. He is also preparing for the shoot of his new video play Multi Meets Poly: Multiculturalism and Polyculturalism Go On a First Date and is finishing work on his latest documentary film Sacred Stages: A Church, a Theatre, and a Story. Khoury holds a M.A. degree in Religious Studies from The University of Chicago Divinity School and a B.S. degree in International Relations from Georgetown University ‘s School of Foreign Service. He is a Kellogg Executive Scholar (Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University) and has been awarded a Certificate of Professional Achievement in Nonprofit Management.

Jacqueline E. Lawton received her MFA in Playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James A. Michener fellow. Her plays include Anna K; Blood-bound and Tongue-tied; Deep Belly Beautiful; The Devil’s Sweet Water; The Hampton Years; Ira Aldridge: Love Brothers Serenade, Mad Breed and Our Man Beverly Snow. She has received commissions from Active Cultures Theater, Discovery Theater, National Portrait Gallery, National Museum of American History, Round House Theatre and Theater J. A 2012 TCG Young Leaders of Color, she has been nominated for the Wendy Wasserstein Prize and a PONY Fellowship from the Lark New Play Development Center. She resides in Washington DC and is a member of Arena Stage’s Playwrights’ Arena.

  • sonja parks

    Bravo! Jamil Khoury has hit the nail on the head! The dominant culture has co-opted multiculturalism/diversity and is now pimping it for its own purposes.
    We are past the days of pleading for a place at a table that is not only laden with the fruits of our own efforts, but that, indeed, is “other” constructed! To quote R. W. Emerson: “I cannot consent to beg for a privilege where I have intrinsic right”.

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