What happens when you bring together a group of well-intentioned White women for dinner with the explicit goal of calling out their role in maintaining white supremacy? This is not a hypothetical question or an SNL sketch, but the premise of a local business. Regina Jackson and Saira Rao formally established Race 2 Dinner earlier this year, and have hosted 8-10 dinners around the metro area. Jackson, who is African American, grew up in an era when white supremacy was still codified. Rao, of Indian parentage, is a former candidate for the U.S. House who came to her awakening a little later in life, after her halcyon Laura-Ashley-and-pearls-days at the University of Virginia.
“Making white women comfortable isn’t our goal,” declares the Race 2 Dinner website, which employs the standard lowercase (in contrast to this paper’s in-house preference for uppercase when referring to an individual or a group). In fact, the opposite is true: discomfort is the objective. Jackson and Rao seek to raise awareness among White women about “how you’ve caused us harm,” as a first step in dismantling white supremacy, “a system that’s killing us all.” And why women? That answer emerges when Jackson states with a knowing smile, “If White men were going to change anything, they would have done it already.”
There is no seat for white fragility at this elegantly set dinner table on a Saturday night in the community still known as Stapleton. Ten well-educated, well-read, progressive White women sit with Rao and Jackson. Many are already engaged in social justice and/or racial justice work, but concede that missteps still occur. Terrell Curtis is at the dinner so she can continue in her work with a local nonprofit, and reflects on her poor word choice with a coworker months before that had nagged at her; “it didn’t matter what my intentions were; it landed for her the way it did because of her experience as a Black woman.”
In preparation for the evening, Curtis and the others have read Robin DiAngelo’s bestselling White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. The White women have pledged among themselves not to behave with defensive behaviors or tears. “For people of color, our [White people’s] tears demonstrate our racial insulation and privilege,” writes DiAngelo.
There will be no tears at dinner, and no overt anger, fear, or expressions of guilt—other behaviors DiAngelo warns of. But there will not be a lot of dialogue, either. Rao and Jackson hold court for two hours, touching on a range of topics. The White women absorb their stories, pain, anger, and sweeping generalizations about White women.
“You guys are the biggest hypocrites on the planet. You could have shut down the entire operation after Sandy Hook and all you do is hashtag and wear pink pussy hats and safety pins. It’s not the NRA that’s responsible for this; it’s you all: White women could have shut down the entire operation after Sandy Hook, and you have chosen not to,” says Rao, who is strident as she assails White women for their complicity in everything from U.S. gun culture to the rape of enslaved women in the antebellum era. “Why do you consciously choose your race over your gender?” Rao questions the group.
Occasionally, there’s a space for the White women to respond, but on the evening in question, the medium seems to form an essential part of the message. This dinner table topples social norms that privilege White voices and experiences, where stereotypes about people of color inform everything from the quality of healthcare received to how people treat a teenager in a hoodie or a ski mask. During a phone debrief a few days later, a number of the White women share that they would have welcomed more of a back and forth in the conversation.
The entire evening is, in fact, a study in one of the paradoxes DiAngelo observes: White people feel confident in their opinions on racism, though most live their lives in segregation. Race 2 Dinner jettisons the customary barriers of politeness, privilege, status and race that insulate White people from race-based stress, forcing them to experience the micro-aggressions and gross generalizations that people of color daily navigate. Dinner guest Becca Miles reflects on the dinner a few days later, observing “It’s completely unique to hear people of color’s raw and unfiltered views on race in such an intimate setting.” Taking part in a Race 2 Dinner “is not a first step,” says Miles; however, “it is important context for those engaged in anti-racism work.”
Neither Rao nor Jackson sugarcoat their messages. Jackson, who possesses a regal and serene presence, speaks less, and seems more deliberate in her words than Rao; however, her message is no more palatable. For much of the evening, her surface calm stands in sharp contrast to Rao’s more aggressive stance. But when she relates an anecdote from a run-in at a grocery store earlier in the week, she conveys the urgency of the racial justice work she is engaged in. While waiting in line for customer service at a King Soopers, Jackson observed an older White woman refuse to cede the way when it was time for a “teeny Latina” to be helped. “When people are oppressed they are afraid to use their voices,” says Jackson. So Jackson interceded on her behalf, nicely asking the White woman to move her cart so the Latina could pass to the counter. “And who’s gonna make me?” the White woman asked. The situation escalated to include some expletives (Jackson) and an aggressive use of a shopping cart (White woman), and King Soopers security.
Ironically, the petite Latina disappears entirely from Jackson’s narrative; however, Jackson’s point is clear: “There were three White people there…. Nobody said a word; I don’t know if it’s lack of courage or fear of losing your White card, but you guys have to call out hate and racism and injustice when you see it. Publicly.”
“Do you see our liberation tied to yours?” Rao asks a dinner guest, who has just shared that the more she speaks out publicly on racial justice issues, the more she is reprimanded by her family and her community. She exhorts the women at the table to engage in a more meaningful way both in the real world and on social media, pointing out, for example, that it is inadequate to “like” posts a person of color has poured their emotional labor into; as in the real world, White women working on equity and racial justice must be willing to take a risk and put themselves on the line. “Stop being afraid of not being liked,” says Rao. Jackson adds, “Publicly make a statement….What you’re not changing, you’re choosing.”
The evening ends with a call to action, and some specific steps White women need to take. Some of these are simple, like reaching out to the one individual or family of color at a school event, or inviting one of your child’s nonwhite classmates over for a playdate. “Stop writing checks to yourselves….take all that money and do a little bit of research and find Black and Brown women candidates, women companies, women documentarians, nonprofits, and businesses…give us the money and we will make sure that all boats rise,” says Rao.
*Please note that the quotation marks in the title of this piece are not air quotes. The editor here was quoting Rao and Jackson.