Richmond native Saira Rao talks quickly as she sips water at a West End coffee shop. She is discussing her new book, co-authored with Regina Jackson of Colorado, that is blunt and provocative regarding the privilege of white women. There’s a documentary movie, too, called “Deconstructing Karen.”
The co-authors are utilizing their book, due out Nov. 1 from Penguin Random House, as well as the movie, directed by Patty Ivins Specht, and perhaps most controversially, their high-priced, private dinners with white women, as tools in an ongoing culture war.
Rao and Jackson are Indian American and Black, respectively. They want to stretch current feminist thinking into something far more progressive than what they say currently exists. Their film has been aired in Canada and has already drawn bitter denouncement from right-wing media, notably Fox News and The New York Post.
Rao, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress when she lived in Colorado, pushes a “take no prisoners” attitude. “I want to break up the Democratic Party,” she says, viewing current party members as being too timid, centrist and unproductive.
The book she co-wrote, “White Women: Everything You Already Knew about Your Own Racism and How to Do Better” is a quick read that is remarkable for its bluntness about the feminist movement. It’s not going to please everyone.
The book states: “One of the reasons white feminism is so insidious –- and why white feminists might more often claim colorblindness (compared with white women who don’t necessarily care about feminism) -- is that white feminists like to think they live in a fantasy world where every woman is equally oppressed.”
Another quote: “Privilege is power. By ignoring your white privilege, you ignore your white power. When you ignore your white power, you uphold white supremacy. This is white feminism. White feminism. Is. White Supremacy.”
Rao’s parents emigrated from India and she was born and raised in Richmond. She graduated from the University of Virginia with a bachelor’s degree and has a law degree from New York University.
For years now, Rao has been taken aback by attitudes about her race and gender. “Speak about race and see what happens,” she says, noting that she and Jackson have been inundated by negative comments on social media and other outlets.
The co-authors started working together in the Denver area.
According to the book, Jackson, who is from Chicago, has a background in business administration. She got a job with an affiliate of telecommunications firm AT&T but quickly believed there was a kind of race filter. She wanted to go into administration but felt shunted into being a telephone operator because that’s where they put Black female employees. It took her years to advance.
- Co-author Regina Jackson
In 2017, Rao, then living in the Denver area, decided to run for Congress against Diana DeGette, a moderate Democrat who had been in office for some time. Rao described her as a “white woman who had done exactly zero.” The more Rao was exposed to the so-called liberal circle in Colorado, the more she became disenchanted. She felt there was much more they could be doing to make income more equitable, expand health care and improve education.
Rao lost the primary but gained a partner in Jackson, who had been a campaign worker. They brainstormed about a book and, later, a documentary movie. But in the interim, another idea popped up.
Both wanted to have serious conversations with white women about racism. So they created a program called “Race2Dinner” in which they and six to eight women would have two-hour sessions that included cocktails, dinner and discussions. The dinners initially cost $2,500 split by attendees. The price is now $5,000.
The goal is to help the white women understand that they might be racist. Once that happens, they can come up with ways around it. Some big problems with white women, Rao and Jackson write, is that they are timid, they want to be too nice and they avoid conflict that could actually make changes.
Unsurprisingly, Rao and Jackson are getting a lot of attention, not to mention some pushback. The film recently aired on Canadian television TV and right wing media outlets were quick to put it down.
Fox News commentator Jesse Watters gave the film a scathing review. He said: “The Canadian broadcasting company paid for and aired a new documentary called ‘Deconstructing Karen.’ It's about two American race hucksters named Regina Jackson and Saira Rao who charge self-hating white women thousands of dollars for the privilege of being called a racist over dinner.”
The New York Post ran a similar story titled: “Shocking: Women chided for ‘upholding white supremacy’ in new “Karen’ film.”
Yet, Rao says they have gotten lots of positive feedback on social media, especially among Black participants. The movie has had 10 million views, she says.
In the meantime, Jackson and Rao are gearing up for marketing the book, the film, and the expensive dinner parties. She adds that “no one was more surprised than me” when she and Jackson snagged a contract with Penguin Random House, a Big Five publishing firm based in New York.
Rao and her family moved back home to Richmond this summer.
“I like its diversity,” she says.