No matter how awkward your next Thanksgiving gathering is, we promise it will be less awkward than the dinner in Deconstructing Karen, a new documentary that features a group of white women gathering together for a blunt topic about race — just in time for the holidays.
In spring of 2019, the producers of Deconstructing Karen invited several Denver-area white women to a dinner hosted by entrepreneurs Regina Jackson and Saira Rao, whose business, Race2Dinner, offers frank assessments of their racial attitudes. With cameras rolling, Rao, who is Indian-American, told the women that “white supremacy and racism is bad for everyone, including white people,” as the guests nodded in agreement. Then she asked everyone to introduce themselves. One woman said she wanted her children to grow up “colorblind.”
“My kids are biracial,” said another woman. “My husband is Hispanic and white. So I don’t see color. … I’m blinded to color. It doesn’t phase me at all. When we bleed, we bleed red.”
A few moments later, Rao addressed the group. “I’ve heard this a couple times: Colorblind, and you don’t see color,” she said. “And I’m just gonna drop the bomb here: That’s white supremacy.” Jackson nodded, but several of the women looked confused. “Colorblindness is white supremacy,” Rao continued.
Cue ominous music as the flummoxed mother of biracial children tried to explain herself — and welcome to Deconstructing Karen, the new documentary from filmmaker Patty Ivins Specht. After a provocative festical run, the film be released on video on demand this Thursday — Thanksgiving Day. It’s sure to spark animated Thanksgiving debate, if that’s your thing. You can watch an exclusive scene here or above.
Jackson and Rao started getting lots of attention Race2Dinner when The Guardian ran a February 2020 story headlined “Why liberal white women pay a lot of money to learn over dinner how they’re racist.” Interest picked up after George Floyd’s murder led more white people to evaluate their behavior and beliefs, and Race2Dinner scored a story by NBC’s Today, which noted that many of Rao and Jackson’s dinners were now taking place online due to COVID. In 2021, TheCut weighed in with a deep dive headlined “Guilty Parties” that said the business had increased the fee for each dinner from $2,500 to $5,000.
What Deconstructing Karen offers that previous media coverage doesn’t is the chance to be a fly on the wall at one of the dinners, and follow the narrative of a frequently awkward conversation. Some moments feel revelatory, and others like a slow-motion car crash. It’s difficult to look away.
“As the filmmaker, I could have made people look worse,” Specht said in an interview with MovieMaker. “I actually held back some things that I thought weren’t fair to some of the people, and I think that’s important, because my estimation is it’s all subjective. What’s in the movie is a very fair and honest portrayal of the events that unfolded.”
Jackson, who is Black, lists marching for Civil Rights in the 1960s and working on presidential campaigns among her qualifications. “Born in Chicago in 1950, Regina remembers an America where everything was in Black and white,” reads her bio on the Race2Dinner website. “Burned into her memory are; the beatings and horrific treatment of civil rights workers throughout the south, the Goodman, Chaney & Schwerner murders, the murder of Viola Liuzzo, the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the murders of President John Kennedy and his brother Robert. The violence perpetrated on innocent people going about their lives, by white people.”
She says in Deconstructing Karen that white women are the focus of Race2Dinner because they’re in a position to enact change. “The market we have identified is white women who call themselves liberal or progressive or Democrat — to not only change themselves, but begin to change their children, their families, their coworkers, their friends. The foot of white supremacy and patriarchy is firmly on their necks, just like it’s on ours,” Jackson says in the film.
Rao’s bio says that “for forty years, she wasted her precious time aspiring to be white and accepted by dominant white society, a futile task for anyone not born with white skin.” A lawyer by training and published novelist, she also made a run for Congress in 2018 that imploded over a tweet. She shared a New York Times op-ed with the headline, “Should I Give Up On White People?” and wrote in response, “Short and long answer: YES.” The blowback was intense, and she later said she had to leave Colorado because of death threats.
Some viewers may take issue with different points in Deconstructing Karen: Is a woman who declares herself “colorblind” a white supremacist, or just someone trying to express goodwill in a clumsy way? Specht believes the film can bring people to the table, literally and metaphorically, to have important conversations about race that they might not otherwise have — even if they don’t like how Rao and Jackson deliver their messages.
“I’ve had a lot of people say to me, ‘They would get so many more people invested in them if they were just nicer. They were just like so rude.’ And I always think that’s really funny, because I think it’s a really powerful disruptor to not be sweet about this. This is ugly, nasty, daily life for a lot of people. So I love the assertiveness with which they move through the world.”
“And I think even though it’s really hard pill to swallow, it’s really liberating for women,” she adds. “We don’t know how to be this direct.”
The film is now playing festivals — it most recently screened at the Mill Valley Film Festival in San Rafael, California — and Specht says viewers regularly stay to talk afterward.
“People came up to Regina and Saira after, people came up to me after… with a lot of gratitude to Saira and Regina, from women of color, just saying, ‘Thank you for helping create dialogue.’ And then a lot of white women will come to me and say, ‘Oh my God, I totally thought I was the good white person and I’m realizing, like, I’m not the good white person. I’m the person who’s tolerating racism in my presence. I’m not challenging it.'”
Deconstructing Karen is available via video on demand.
Main image: Race2Dinner founders Saira Rao and Regina Jackson in Deconstructing Karen, directed by Patty Ivins Specht. You can learn more about the film here.