NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE T he psychiatrist Viktor Frankl said: “Every age has its own collective neurosis, and every age needs its own psychotherapy to cope with it.” A portrait of American neurosis: Groups of white women are spending $2,500 on a one-night, in-home struggle session to probe their participation in systems of American racism. Seated around a table at a patron’s suburban Camelot over plates of bruschetta and glasses of wine — guilt for the demimonde — groups of seven or eight white women pay Saira Rao and Regina Jackson, two activists of color, thousands of dollars to expose the group’s “complicity in upholding white supremacy and keeping Black and brown women down.”
In a society that has lost its sense of sin, Rao and Jackson offer attendees a coherent, almost biblical story of their depravity: White people are necessarily “privileged,” inexorably stained by their “whiteness” like the blot of original sin. The dinners offer an opportunity for baptismal rebirth and conversion, to shed their attachments to white hegemony and achieve a sense of meaning and purpose in a nihilistic age. Frankl said that the “mass neurosis of the present time can be described as a private and personal form of nihilism.” For Saira Rao and Regina Jackson, mass neurosis is a business model.
Rao and Jackson’s website “Race to Dinner” describes the dinner events as a chance for “white women” to partake in a “conversation about how the white women at the table are complicit in the continued injustices of our white supremacist society.” Rao explained her rationale to The Guardian: “I spent years trying to get through to white women with coffees and teas — massaging them, dealing with their tears, and I got nowhere.” Since coddling didn’t work, Rao resolved to “shake them awake.” How? By entering the proverbial lions’ den: “Wealthy white women,” Rao said, “have been taught never to leave the dinner table.” If she and Jackson were able to meet “them” in “their” element — white women have been “taught never to leave the dinner table,” after all — the activists might have more success.
They’ve been quite successful, in a certain sense. Since the program began in the spring of 2019, 15 groups have hired Rao and Jackson to deconstruct their “whiteness” and inherited “white privilege.” Those sessions, combined with the annualized payout from the tandem’s Patreon account, amounts to well over $40,000 in revenue. If “oppression” is the operative enemy the duo intends to fight, one wonders if and when Rao and Jackson will raise sufficient funds to put themselves out of business.
Such questions rarely get asked, because Rao and Jackson make a point of nipping dissent in the bud. The Race to Dinner website implores white women who participate in the program to resist offering “white defenses,” or self-justifying rejoinders to the pair’s radical rhetoric. Accept your complicity in white supremacy, the logic goes, since to ask questions of your accusers is to reveal your collaboration in their oppression. Clients are warned that Rao and Jackson will not hesitate to “interrupt white fragility” — tears, defensiveness, or objections — as necessary, “so as not to derail the conversation.”
For a glimpse of the sort of “conversation” one might expect at one of these dinners, one need only look to the “Videos on Whiteness” tab on the Race to Dinner website.
I watched one “Video on Whiteness” — it was about as entertaining as impaling my foot with a rusted nail — called “Stereotyping White Women.” It was hosted by “resident white woman” Lisa Bond, a middle-aged woman with a bob haircut and a vice principal’s mien. When not fulfilling her role as the “resident white woman,” Bond is the program manager. This consists, in part, of helping to “prepare white women to host a dinner event with Saira and Regina.” She also discusses the “fragility that shows up at the events” and aims to “further deconstruct our whiteness” in a follow-up phone call.
What is “fragility”? Bond cited a debriefing call in which some women complained that “Saira and Regina stereotyped them” during the dinner conversation. “White people,” Bond explained in that patronizing, self-righteous, Vox-ified cadence, “are not stereotyped.” “When Saira and Regina are talking about ‘white women,’ they are talking about all of us. And we [white women] get really upset when we can’t hide behind our individuality.” Stripping people of their “individuality”? Automatically assuming things about their behavior on the basis of their immutable characteristics? Resident white guy talking: Sounds like stereotyping.
It’s hard to miss Rao and Jackson’s use of stereotypical and — yes — racist language if you spend any time looking at their website or read their comments in The Guardian. Rao and Jackson make frequent use of “white” as a derogative modifier — “White fragility,” as opposed to “fragility”; “white woman tears” as opposed to “tears”; “white defenses” as opposed to reasoned rebuttals; and so on. The implication, of course, is that a similarly situated nonwhite person is free to be “fragile,” to proffer “defenses” against charges that they are complicit in a racial supremacist project, or to cry “tears” when their character is impugned by strangers who rake in $2,500 per evening to hector women on the basis of their melanin count. To be “a white person in America,” says the Race to Dinner website, is to be “an active participant in upholding white supremacy.” If it is indeed the case that simply being “a white person in America” means participating in white supremacy, one wonders what Rao and Jackson hope to achieve with the dinner series.
The $2,500 can’t hurt.