Written by Elisa Bonora, Patty Ivins Specht, Rit Saraswat
2022 | 1h 15min
Shown most recently at the Mill Valley Film Festival, Deconstructing Karen is a high-octane plea from the heart, an absorbing documentary about two miracle workers who are changing the world, one dinner at a time.
In 2019 Saira and Regina founded Race2Dinner to help change the face of conversations about race in the United States. They knew this would be an uphill struggle, since they understood that any culture changes through personal interaction – one person, one meeting, one dinner at a time.
Their target: Euro-American women. Helping women overcome unconscious racial supremacy would make a significant difference. In the 19th century William Ross Wallace wrote “the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.”
For a long time this perspective was forgotten. For Saira and Regina, this growing awareness led to research, outreach, networking, until they knew what approach to take.
One inspiration: the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King spoke of being “greatly disappointed in the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice.”
The documentary starts with an invitation-only dinner in pleasant surroundings. The table is set with polished crystal and flatware, pristine china, and candles. Guests enter the dining room with wine glasses in their hands. Dinner is served, and the conversation begins.
The promise that drew eight women to accept the invitation to dinner: “the promise of raw, insightful, provocative conversation.”
Saira is the daughter of high-achieving immigrants from India. Regina is a retired African American who is a sister, mother and grandmother. Both love their families deeply and both have struggled with facing relentless racism against brown and black.
Their ally is Genevieve, a blonde mother and wife, who chuckles over how clueless she was until she encountered Regina and Saira. All three understand that white women are more likely to participate in this experiment if there is at least one white face on the team.
Throughout Deconstructing Karen there is poignant contrast between the world of being with family, and the outside realities which make the work of Race2Dinner so necessary. Genevieve’s toddler son wanders into the room as she takes a meeting online with her colleagues. At the dinner table Saira’s young son speaks of racism he encounters in school. And we see Regina spending time with several grandkids outdoors, surrounding them with love.
The one rule for guests at dinner? If you are going to cry, please leave the table and go into the adjacent room for Kleenex and a comfortable chair. References to the connection between women’s tears and historical incidents in the 19th and 20th century make it clear why this has been decided. Here one thinks of Ruby Hamad’s book, “White Tears, Brown Scars.”
Guests are not asked to deal with documented incidents in American history. Instead they are asked to focus on what privileges they take for granted now, and how a lack of awareness about racial inequality fits in with the status quo. Both liberals and conservatives are included, and both major political parties are represented. The conversation is lively and penetrating.
If even one woman gains clarity at each of their dinners, then Saira and Regina believe they have achieved their goal that day. “Every woman we enlighten has her own network.” Together these networks are huge.
Those who have power over others will not give it up. So the women whose hands rock the cradles are being asked to take back their power, for the health and well-being of their country.
At the end of the dinner filmed on this day, the hosts pay tribute to the courage of the eight women who were willing to attend and be filmed: Sarah, Lori, Holly, Jessica, Hazel, Marni, Michele and Ali.
Frederick Douglass said “power cedes nothing.” Those who have power over others will not give it up. So the women whose hands rock the cradles are being asked to take back their power, for the health and well-being of their country.
Why is this conversation so hard? Because we never had truth and reconciliation in this country, Race2Dinner reminds us. Saira has said, “The work that I do is because of love. I believe you all can deprogram yourselves.”
One year after this event, Race2Dinner contacts the eight participants filmed and asks if anyone wishes to talk about where she is today. The most poignant reply comes from Ali. She reads from a post she put on her Facebook page. She pays tribute to Regina and Saira for their courage in showing up and making the effort to enlighten others.
This remarkable documentary had its premiere at the Bentonville Film Festival, a festival founded by actor Geena Davis. And it was shown at the Hot Docs Canadian International documentary festival.
Regina Jackson and Saira Rao are executive producers, along with director Patty Ivins Specht.