Poppy Noor, The Guardian, February 3, 2020
Freshly made pasta is drying on the wooden bannisters lining the hall of a beautiful home in Denver, Colorado. Fox-hunting photos decorate the walls in a room full of books. A fire is burning. And downstairs, a group of liberal white women have gathered around a long wooden table to admit how racist they are.
“Recently, I have been driving around, seeing a black person, and having an assumption that they are up to no good,” says Alison Gubser. “Immediately after I am like, that’s no good! This is a human, just doing their thing. Why do I think that?”
This is Race to Dinner. A white woman volunteers to host a dinner in her home for seven other white women – often strangers, perhaps acquaintances. (Each dinner costs $2,500, which can be covered by a generous host or divided among guests.) A frank discussion is led by co-founders Regina Jackson, who is black, and Saira Rao, who identifies as Indian American. They started Race to Dinner to challenge liberal white women to accept their racism, however subconscious. “If you did this in a conference room, they’d leave,” Rao says. “But wealthy white women have been taught never to leave the dinner table.”
Rao and Jackson believe white, liberal women are the most receptive audience because they are open to changing their behavior. They don’t bother with the 53% of white women who voted for Trump. White men, they feel, are similarly a lost cause. “White men are never going to change anything. If they were, they would have done it by now,” Jackson says.
White women, on the other hand, are uniquely placed to challenge racism because of their proximity to power and wealth, Jackson says. “If they don’t hold these positions themselves, the white men in power are often their family, friends and partners.”
It seems unlikely anyone would voluntarily go to a dinner party in which they’d be asked, one by one, “What was a racist thing you did recently?” by two women of color, before appetizers are served. But Jackson and Rao have hardly been able to take a break since they started these dinners in the spring of 2019. So far, 15 dinners have been held in big cities across the US.
The women who sign up for these dinners are not who most would see as racist. They are well-read and well-meaning. They are mostly Democrats. Some have adopted black children, many have partners who are people of color, some have been doing work towards inclusivity and diversity for decades. But they acknowledge they also have unchecked biases. They are there because they “know [they] are part of the problem, and want to be part of the solution,” as host Jess Campbell-Swanson says before dinner starts.
Campbell-Swanson comes across as an overly keen college student applying for a prestigious internship. She can go on for days about her work as a political consultant, but when it comes to talking about racism, she chokes.
“I want to hire people of color. Not because I want to be … a white savior. I have explored my need for validation … I’m working through that … Yeah. Um … I’m struggling,” she stutters, before finally giving up.
Across from Campbell-Swanson, Morgan Richards admits she recently did nothing when someone patronizingly commended her for adopting her two black children, as though she had saved them. “What I went through to be a mother, I didn’t care if they were black,” she says, opening a window for Rao to challenge her: “So, you admit it is stooping low to adopt a black child?” And Richards accepts that the undertone of her statement is racist.
As more confessions like this are revealed, Rao and Jackson seem to press those they think can take it, while empathizing with those who can’t. “Well done for recognizing that,” Jackson says, to soothe one woman. “We are all part of the problem. We have to get comfortable with that to become part of the solution.”
Carbonara is heaped on to plates, and a sense of self-righteousness seems to wash over the eight white women. They’ve shown up, admitted their wrongdoing and are willing to change. Don’t they deserve a little pat on the back?
Erika Righter raises her tattooed forearm to her face, in despair of all of the racism she’s witnessed as a social worker, then laments how a white friend always ends phone calls with “Love you long time”.
“And what is your racism, Erika?” Rao interrupts, refusing to let her off the hook. The mood becomes tense. Another woman adds: “I don’t know you, Erika. But you strike me as being really in your head. Everything I’m hearing is from the neck up.”
Righter, a single mother, retreats before defending herself: “I haven’t read all the books. I’m new to this.”
A lot of people hate Saira Rao.
“The American flag makes me sick,” read a recent tweet of hers. Another: “White folks – before telling me that your Indian husband or wife or friend or colleague doesn’t agree with anything I say about racism or thinks I’m crazy, please Google ‘token,’ ‘internalized oppression’ and ‘gaslighting’.”
She wasn’t always this confrontational, she says. Her “awakening” began recently.
After Rao’s mother died unexpectedly a few years ago, she moved to Denver from New York to be around her best friends – a group of mostly white women from college. She wasn’t new to being the only person of color, but she was surprised to notice how they would distance themselves whenever she’d talk frankly about race.
Then, fuelled by anger at Trump’s election after she’d campaigned tirelessly for Hillary Clinton, Rao ran for Congress in 2018 against a Democratic incumbent on an anti-racist manifesto, and criticized the “pink-pussy-hat-wearing” women of the Democratic party. It was during this campaign Rao met Jackson, who works in real estate. Jackson recalls her initial impressions of Rao as “honest, and willing to call a thing a thing”.
It’s that brashness that led to Race for Dinner. Rao is done with affability. “I’d spent years trying to get through to white women with coffees and teas – massaging them, dealing with their tears, and I got nowhere. I thought, if nothing is going to work, let’s try to shake them awake.”
The genesis of Race to Dinner wasn’t straightforward. Months after a dinner discussion about race with a white friend of Jackson’s went south, Rao bumped into that friend, who had started reading Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race.
“She told me that the dinner had changed everything for her, and asked if we could do another,” says Rao. The friend invited other guests, Rao reluctantly agreed, then hated that second dinner, too. But then white women began flooding her inbox asking her to do it again.
In the beginning, Rao’s dinner-party tone was much more argumentative. But it left her looking less like a human and more like some kind of real-life trolling bot. Women at the dinners were always crying. Some of those dinners got out of hand – attendees have tried to place their hands on Jackson and Rao, and racial slurs have been thrown around.
“My blood pressure went up. I’d work myself up into a frenzy at every dinner. I realized [that] if I walk away feeling I am going to have a stroke, we should try a different tactic,” Rao says.
Susan Brown attended one of those earlier dinners. She says she felt like Rao and Jackson were angry at her the whole time, without ever learning why. She found Rao needlessly provocative and mean-spirited, unaware of her own class privilege, and divisive. She felt the dinner set her up to fail.
Another previous attendee, who did not want to be named, says she found Rao to be dogmatic, and presented a distorted depiction of history, leaving out facts that do not fit her narrative. At one point, she referred to Rao as “the Trump of the alt-left”.
But even for those who complained, something has changed. Brown read White Fragility – a book released last year that posits every person partakes to some degree in racism and needs to confront that – and realized many of the things she was commending herself for needed to be re-evaluated. The book is now assigned reading for women before they can attend a dinner.
The woman who compared Rao to Trump went to a city council meeting to speak up about the death of a young black man in her area. She attributes that specifically to Jackson’s call for solidarity.
In recent months, Jackson and Rao changed the model. They didn’t want to just have women rely on them to shout at them for being racist and then go home.
“We began to expect more of them,” says Rao. That meant asking the women to speak up. To own their racism. It meant getting them to do the required reading, as well as follow-up discussions, where they decide how to do better anti-racist work.
In the conversation that followed the dinner, Campbell-Swanson, who couldn’t get her racist thoughts out, committed to writing a journal, jotting down daily decisions or thoughts that could be considered racist, and think about how to approach them differently.
Lisa Bond, who was hired because Rao and Jackson thought there would be instances when participants would feel more comfortable expressing their feelings to another white woman, says this will help her see how unmonitored thoughts can lead to systemic racism. “If our ability to spot these things increases, our ability to challenge it will increase,” says Bond.
Bond says about 65% of participants engage meaningfully in post-dinner conversations with her. But weren’t these women already doing the work? Don’t they want to speak to those women who have no intention of challenging themselves?
“There are so many people worse than us,” says Bond. “I have gotten to the point where I no longer try to pay attention to what someone else is doing. I don’t talk about the 53% [who voted for Trump] because I’m not one of them.”
What is in her power, she says, is forcing herself to talk to her sister, who did vote for Trump, even when it gets difficult. She emphasizes this work has to continue, no matter who is president.
“If Trump were impeached tomorrow and we got a new president, a lot of white liberal people will go back to living their lives just as before, and that’s what we have to prevent,” she says. “All that’s happened is we can see racism now, while before we could cover it up. That’s why we need these dinners. So when we get a new person in and racism is not as obvious, we won’t just crawl back to being comfortable.”