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St. Louis 'Dysfunctionalware' dinners host conversations on white privilege

A few days after a grand jury declined to indict the police officer who shot Michael Brown in 2014, Tara O’Nay’s family sat down for Thanksgiving dinner. For the first time the St. Louis interdisciplinary artist could remember, her relatives talked about race over a meal.

“It made me realize how dysfunctional that was. How do we get 30 years into this and never have talked about race? Or where we fit into this picture?” O’Nay said. “But then once we do, it’s just an explosion.”

Now, O’Nay is making sure other white people don’t go decades without talking honestly about race, white privilege and the benefits of living in a society that values whiteness.

One participant prepares a course in one of the first Dysfunctionalware dinners. The dinners usually last around 2 hours. Oct. 20, 2016. File photo.
Credit Jeanette McDermott | Dysfunctionalware
One participant prepares a course in one of the first Dysfunctionalware dinners. The dinners usually last around 2 hours.

Dysfunctionalware” is a series of dinners open to everyone, but specifically for people who have benefited from white privilege in the region. The next dinner happens Saturday in Webster Groves. More dinners are planned through next year. Participants are served a multi-course meal on plates where local artists have illustrated depictions of their experiences with white privilege. The conversation is facilitated from there. 

One plate, for example, critiques academic spaces that value the contributions of white men over people of color. Another juxtaposes “the talk” given to a white child versus a black child. The former is about the “birds and the bees,” the latter is about how to maneuver interactions with police.

“I’ve tried to design the project so we get as many voices in there as possible. The artists in the project are white people as well as people of color,” O’Nay said. “I [wanted] a space where white people can sit together and help each other figure this out, and not have to always  rely on people of color to do that work for them.”

This initial round of dinners comes courtesy of two grants O’Nay secured from the Mid-America Arts Alliance and the St. Louis Regional Arts Commission. She describes the project as a work  in progress that is improving with every iteration — but she never claims to have all the answers.

“A lot of people expect that I’m coming to them as a born-again anti-racist and I’ve got some answers [or] I’ve got some message for them that’s going to change their life," O'Nay joked. "It’s so not that way. I’m just trying to bring people together to work this all out with me.”

Follow Jenny on Twitter @jnnsmn