A provocative if uneven documentary about an intriguing project to help white women acknowledge their own racism sent Fox News huckster Jesse Watters into hysterics Monday night, calling it an attack comparable to Pearl Harbor. The film, Deconstructing Karen, was made by American women, but distributed by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Apparently, our peaceful allies to the north are coming for us.
“America’s under attack tonight. A cross-border war has been waged by our northern neighbors,” Watters began.
Thanks, Jesse! I had no plans Tuesday night, and I had to see this. I reached out to project organizer and activist Saira Rao, who connected me with director Patty Ivins Specht, who sent me a screener. I settled in and prepared to feel attacked.
And you know, sometimes I did. That’s the point. Even the most (self-designated) enlightened white ally can have blind spots, and Deconstructing Karen walks us through most of them.
But first, it sits us down to a delightful meal, with red and white wine, at an elegantly appointed table in a gorgeous home near Denver. The film features one dinner hosted by Race2Dinner, a group led by Rao and her political partner Regina Jackson. Rao, who is of Indian descent, and Jackson who is Black, have created a project that tries to bring white women together, along with the pair of color, to have “radically honest conversations,” in Jackson’s words, about white women’s racism, whether conscious, unconscious or fervently denied (we see all three over this dinner, whose participants agreed to be filmed for broadcast).
“The market we have identified is white women who identify as liberal or progressive or Democrat, to not only change themselves, but their children, their families, their coworkers, their friends,” says Jackson.
“The only way you can change the DNA is through personal interactions,” Rao says. “And the best way to do that is breaking bread.”
Watters calls it “the dinner party from hell,” and sometimes it feels that way, but it’s worth it. On an elementary level, Rao and Jackson quickly identify, with the help of their more clueless guests, the many forms of white female denial of their racism, which is itself racism. At least two women insist that they’re “color-blind,” they “don’t see color”; one uses the good old-fashioned dodge: “When we’re cut, we all bleed red.” Rao sternly warns the group: “Do not teach your kids about ‘red blood’” as a way to profess your non-racism.” When another expresses shock at the persistence of racism, she is told that “shock” is a racist hedge too. “Part of white feminism is acting surprised,” Rao tells the group. “When you express shock, it pushes you away from the blame.”
Getting upset at what they’re hearing is also a controlling form of “fragility” that keeps the conversation centered on the white woman, they are told. Women who insist they’ve had boyfriends and even husbands of color get the funniest rebuke from Rao: “You cannot, frankly, fuck your way out of racism.”
And, for anyone who didn’t know, “white women’s tears” over racism are deadly. In the worst case, they can get a person of color in all kinds of trouble, but even in anti-racist work, tears can be used to shift the conversation to the feelings of the poor, crying white woman, and away from the conflict at hand. In fact, any guest at the table who begins to tear up, let alone cry, over what she’s hearing has to go to the living room and compose herself.
What starts as a lovely dinner evolves into a bit of an emotional boot camp. And maybe it has to be, to get past these women’s ingrained defenses. But there are a couple of faulty premises: Jackson said these are liberal women who are paying $250 to dine, converse, and learn about their racism. But at least two—and it’s no coincidence that they’re the most clueless, defensive, and annoying of all the guests (one insists she faces discrimination because she’s a “blonde female”)—admit that they voted for Trump. That undermines the premise: The hosts say at one point that “white liberal women fight white Republican women, but you’re all the same,” and a staffer goes so far as to say, “Liberal white ladies are the most dangerous women out there.”
But at this very Race2Dinner table, we have proof that just isn’t true, at least among these 10 white women. Several, who listen more than talk—which is the foundation of understanding, at least to start with—say they’ve worked to deal with their own racism and admit that they have more work to do. One says she’s the descendant of slave traders, sounding ashamed. I’d venture these are not “the most dangerous women out there.”
In the part of the dinner Watters finds most objectionable, Rao and Jackson ask their guests to raise their hands if they think they’re racist. The camera focuses first on the women who are shocked, including the two Trump voters, and no hands are raised for a few tense seconds. But then a few of the women, including those who’ve previously admitted to working on their own race issues, put their hands in the air. But when Rao joins them, almost every hand goes up.
I found that fascinating, and key to my own small reservations about this project: It promises conversation, but mostly the white women are lectured. When Rao admits her own racism, which she describes as anti-Black, not uncommon in Indian communities, it somehow triggers more of the women to do the same. Maybe they shouldn’t need such hand-holding, or maybe Rao’s admitting to the complexity of the issue—a brown woman can still be racist—lets the women go deeper into their own hidden biases. In fact, Rao’s own story is of moving from being “a white woman in a brown body,” an avid Hillary Clinton supporter and Democrat, to getting in touch with her own identity and her anger at how white feminism suppressed it. She declares independence from the Democratic Party in one scene, but then goes on to run for Congress, primarying longtime white moderate Diana DeGette. And while she loses, the multiracial team she assembled is a win.
I’d have liked more of that depth on some of the white participants, too. While we’re constantly told that white women get “defensive” in order to make the issue about them, on one level, the whole project absolutely is about them, in the project founders’ own words. A bit more exploration of and tolerance for their feelings might go a long way. (If I were involved, I’d even let them cry under some circumstances, but I know I’m white.)
Still, my discomfort is part of the process. When Jackson says she doesn’t trust a single white woman, many of her dinner guests object, strongly. I felt a twinge too. But that’s grown out of her life experience; am I asking her to change it to make me feel better? Doesn’t she know she can trust me? Some of the guests just can’t acknowledge Jackson’s reality.
By the end, the guest who complained that she’d faced discrimination as a “blonde female” has an epiphany: “I’m not being killed for being white,” she acknowledges. At this session, that’s a kind of progress. A year later, she did not respond to a request for a follow-up interview, nor did the two other most resistant dinner guests. But the others all reported that the dinner launched them on a deeper journey to understand their own complicity with white oppression.
Rao and Jackson are trying to turn Race2Dinner into a business, but they’ve struggled to find financing. Ten women ponying up $250 each hasn’t created a sustainable organization. During Covid, they took their dinners to Zoom. Personally, I would love to see Race2Dinner become a weekly reality show, not one that’s edited to provoke catfights and intrigue, but one that lets us get to know these women more deeply. Those who’ve already realized they are racist—how did that happen? We hear more from the clueless Trumpers than from women who’ve actually tried to do some internal anti-racist work. And while nobody wants Real Housewives–style catfights, genuine debates could be illuminating. There’s something to this method, despite my discomfort, or maybe because of it. But anything that triggers Jesse Watters to new heights of stupidity and vindictiveness has my support.