PC Culture

The Privilege of Saira Rao and Regina Jackson

A Black Lives Matter protest in New York City, 2016 (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)
What kind of racist society gives two women of color a book deal for explaining to white people that they’re racist?

Saira Rao and Regina Jackson run Race to Dinner, a for-profit organization that charges white women $2,500 per roundtable struggle session to examine their complicity in institutional racism. Penguin Random House, one of the largest publishers in the United States, gave the two women of color a book deal for their forthcoming tome White Women: Everything You Already Know about Your Own Racism and How to Get Better.

Rao, a former congressional candidate and the daughter of two Indian immigrants, called the book a treatise “on all things white women.” That a major American publishing house thought this subject appropriate for a substantial book deal calls to mind a paradox at the heart of left-wing racial thought.

We were once told that the reason a six-year-old white girl couldn’t dress up as the Polynesian Disney princess Moana for Halloween is that her doing so would be tantamount to blackface. That such a sentiment is facially absurd was never considered by the people who wrote think-pieces on the subject. Nor was the offensive implication that Polynesian people are so obtuse as to be offended by a six-year-old’s Halloween costume. If one is willing to indulge the hypothesis that a Moana costume is a close cousin of minstrelsy, I suppose there is a lot one has not considered.

By contrast, it is apparently acceptable for two non-white women to write a book for a major American publishing house “on all things white women,” necessarily caricaturing an entire group of people in the process. If a six-year-old in some random suburb can’t wear a Disney costume because the princess in question is of a different race, why is it appropriate for two wealthy adults to write a book for a large publisher about “all things” related to a racial group to which they don’t belong? That it is considered acceptable for a former congressional candidate and her wealthy compatriot to write a book demonizing an entire racial group but not okay for a toddler to wear a Moana Halloween costume in, say, suburban Boise speaks to the frivolity of intersectional politics.

There are all sorts of arcane ideological reasons offered to explain this obvious absurdity away. The most likely defense will include some version of the following: Pacific Islanders do not have the requisite “power” to “dispel” the “caricatures” of their culture propagated by trick-or-treating six-year-olds. White women, by contrast, are “privileged” and must therefore accept — without protest, for to protest is evidence of “white fragility” — those stereotypes and caricatures of their race and gender peddled by two hucksters at a major American publishing house.

The assumption that members of various racial groups hold institutional “power” commensurate with their particular race creates the absurd paradigm under which a small white child who wears a Moana Halloween costume is “punching down,” while the former congressional candidate who says “all white people are racist” is “punching up.”

If we follow the intersectional argument all the way down to its sordid foundation, the reason one could never write a book on “all things Polynesian women” but could land a lucrative book deal for a tome on “all things white women” is that Polynesian women are presumed to be oppressed in the United States. But whites — and by extension white women — are presumed to be universally “privileged,” unaffected by any sort of prejudice and discrimination.

In this view, racism is contingent on power, and only people with sufficient institutional power to act on their prejudice can be actively “racist.” Polynesian women exist at the “intersection” of two vectors of oppression: their womanhood and their Polynesian descent. And their oppression is manifest in statistical disparities, such as persistent racial income gaps.

If we are playing by these rules — detestable as they are — we would be derelict if we failed to mention that Indian Americans, such as Saira Rao, are the single highest-earning demographic group in the United States. The median household income of Indian Americans is over $110,000, according to Census data. The median white household makes just over $70,000 a year.

In any case, the fact that one of the largest publishers in the country became aware of Rao’s and Jackson’s absurd struggle sessions and then gave them a book deal for a treatise on “white women” should forever disabuse Rao and Jackson of the notion that they inhabit an incorrigibly racist society.

As if on cue, Rao laments that “America is racist. To deny this isn’t just racist, it’s irrational.” Irrational indeed.

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