Hot Docs

Deconstructing Karen Review: Waking Up White Women

Hot Docs 2022

4 mins read

Deconstructing Karen
(USA, 75 min.)
Dir. Patti Ivins Specht
Programme: Persister (World Premiere)


Patti Ivins Specht’s film begins with examples of overt racism and hate from the extreme right. But the main theme of the movie is that right wing extremists and Trump lovers are not the biggest obstacle to ending racism. White liberals, especially white female liberals and Democratic Clinton lovers who believe they don’t have a racist bone in their bodies, are the ones propping up the white privileged patriarchy. “White women’s niceness is killing us,” say Regina Jackson and Saira Rao, who are the bold and incisive protagonists of Deconstructing Karen.

Theirs is a powerful premise, expertly explored in this essential and exhilarating film. The duo are anti-racists activists spearheading the Race to Dinner Campaign designed to bring women who call themselves “woke” to the dinner table to talk about the intersection between race and gender. Regina Jackson is a Black descendent of slaves and Saira Rao grew up as the only South Asian in her school. Both talk about their experience with racism in the film but the centrepiece is the dinner where they speak their truth to their guests, who have attended willingly but plainly have no idea what they will actually encounter.

The white liberal women are asked at the outset, “How many of you think you are racist?” None puts up her hand. All of them have a reason for refusing the description. I’m married to a Latino; how could I be a racist? I want to be colour blind. We all bleed red. I believe in love. We didn’t create slavery. And so on.

Jackson and Rao speak bluntly to their guests: you say you’re colour blind, but you notice that blood is red – don’t erase my identity. Notice your privilege – you don’t get comments about your whiteness every day. If you want to cry, leave the room – otherwise you’re drawing all the attention. And as the film unfolds, you can sense the room shifting.

But there’s even more at stake here, not only for the participants in the dinner party but for white viewers. I could not experience this film as a spectator only. Many times, I found myself thinking “Oh my god, I could imagine saying that” just before one of the hosts takes on one their guests for a particularly ignorant comment.

On its surface, the film is an invitation to view a transformative experience for a group of questioning women. But it’s more than that. It is a challenge to every viewer, whether we’re mainstream liberals or radical activists, to resist complacency and to participate in the discourse assuming that white people are almost always part of the problem. It is also an invitation to take responsibility and to become more active in the fight against racism.

Deconstructing Karen premieres at Hot Docs on Tuesday, May 3.


Susan G. Cole is a playwright, broadcaster, feminist commentator and the Books and Entertainment editor at NOW Magazine, where she writes about film. She is the author of two books on pornography and violence against women: Power Surge and Pornography and the Sex Crisis (both Second Story books), and the play A Fertile Imagination. She is the the editor of Outspoken (Playwrights Canada Press), a collection of lesbian monologues from Canadian plays. Hear her every Thursday morning at 9 AM on Talk Radio 640’s Media and the Message panel or look for her monthly on CHTV’s Square Off debate.

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