The controversy surrounding a recent Osborne House fundraiser rages on, and parties on both sides of the debate have some apologizing to do.
For those who haven’t been following the news, a series of internal emails between Eric Robinson, Manitoba’s Deputy Premier, and Nahanni Fontaine, the province’s Special Advisor on Aboriginal Women’s Issues, were recently obtained through a FIPPA request. They revealed that Fontaine wrote to her colleagues that the women’s shelter fundraiser, organized by local clothing store The Foxy Shoppe and featuring a burlesque act by local performer Angela La Muse, was “blatantly stupid” and showed a “total disregard for women’s and girls’ dignity and sacredness.” Robinson replied that the fundraiser was a demonstration of “the ignorance of do-good white people.” Osborne House CEO Barbara Judt has responded by filing a complaint with the Manitoba Human Rights Commission, alleging racism and government discrimination against Osborne House, which has been experiencing funding shortages.
Accusations of “racism” off base
It is hard to take sides in this debate because all three individuals have behaved poorly.
Firstly, Judt is demonstrating a very narrow and incomplete understanding of the concept of racism and how it operates in our society. Institutional racism—the commonly accepted understanding of racism within academic, leftist, and feminist circles—can be defined as a system of power and privilege that puts one group (white people) at an advantage, and another group (people of colour) at a disadvantage in society. Under this definition it is, therefore, impossible for an Aboriginal person to be racist against a white person. Under institutional racism, Aboriginal people, being historically and currently oppressed and marginalized, are on the receiving end of racism, while white people benefit from racism and thereby maintain their dominant position in society. This is the crux of the concept of white privilege.
This definition, of course, is not the only definition of racism, but it is the most useful and meaningful in terms of social analysis and activism. It is, therefore, alarming that Judt, as someone who is involved in social work and feminist causes, appears to be completely ignorant of these ideas. She fails to realize that she, as a white person, cannot be systematically marginalized and discriminated against based on her skin colour in a society shaped by institutional racism, which is why any human rights complaint alleging racism against a white person should be automatically dismissed. A more self-aware and educated perspective should be expected of someone running a shelter that serves a large number of Aboriginal women. Her crusade against Robinson and the provincial government shows highly questionable judgment.
Robinson’s words were not evidence of racism but clearly an expression of legitimate frustration with a certain type of behaviour and attitude common among white people. He, as an Aboriginal person living in a white-dominated racist society, has every right and reason to feel that frustration, and express it in those straightforward terms without having to censor himself so as not to offend oversensitive white people who don’t want to acknowledge their privilege. Judt ought to take a step back and view Robinson’s comments within the broader context of his lived experience and of society.
It is, however, unfortunate that Robinson, before making his comments, did not investigate this fundraiser a little deeper; if he had, he would have discovered that it was conceived and organized by Pamela Fox, the owner of The Foxy Shoppe, who happens to be a woman of colour. She organized the fundraiser partly because Osborne House helped her after she suffered from years of domestic abuse, and she is owed a sincere apology from Robinson and Fontaine for their insulting and uninformed comments.
Sexism in email exchange remains unaddressed
It is also unfortunate that, with all of the media hubbub surrounding Judt’s misguided human rights complaint, another important element of this story is being lost. While it certainly wasn’t racist, what was written in Robinson and Fontaine’s email exchange was still highly problematic from a feminist perspective. It must be remembered that what they were specifically discussing was not the leadership of Osborne House, but whether a fundraiser featuring a burlesque performance was appropriate for a women’s shelter fundraiser.
Despite Robinson and Fontaine’s preconceived ideas, burlesque is viewed by many as a form of female empowerment through which women are encouraged to embrace their sexuality and can express it in a fun, supportive atmosphere. It is an art form that is female-dominated across the board, from organization to attendance at shows. It is also known for including women of all sizes, ages, and colours. It does not have the problematic connotation of frequently featuring vulnerable women performing solely for male pleasure.
Burlesque performers, like all women, have autonomy over their own bodies. They should be free to express themselves and their sexuality in whichever way they are comfortable, and should never be shamed for doing so. The assertion that a woman performing a striptease is inherently exploited disregards her bodily autonomy as well as the fact that perhaps she has chosen to do so for her own reasons, not to please or service anyone else.
The contention that funds raised by a burlesque performance are not fit to be donated to a women’s shelter is even more insulting. This fundraiser was about women supporting women, and that is the bottom line. Different women may have different comfort levels or personal preferences with regards to nudity and sex, but female solidarity should transcend that. If this were a story about, for example, exotic dancers raising money for a shelter, their efforts would still be worthy of commendation. These women are not lesser people for what they choose to do with their own bodies, do not necessarily view themselves as being exploited, and are still allowed to care deeply about feminist causes.
Fontaine’s words were disappointing. It is troubling that our province’s Special Advisor on Aboriginal Women’s Issues holds such an archaic attitude toward female bodily autonomy. A woman or girl’s “dignity and sacredness” is never determined by where, when, or how often she chooses to take her clothes off. This body policing contributes to women’s oppression; third-wave feminism has roundly condemned it as slut-shaming, and Fontaine of all people should know better. Her perspective is a relic of the old guard of feminism that is being challenged as modern young feminists embrace the radical notion that how they choose to express their sexuality does not define their worth.
Apologies warranted all around
As for Robinson, he, as a man, has no right to an opinion about whether anything a woman freely chooses to do with her own body is exploitative. This is the exact same principle that applies to Judt, who, as a white person, has no right to accuse a person of colour of racism. Policing women’s bodies under the guise of benevolence and concern is still sexism, and sexism should not be excused simply because someone else’s problematic behaviour is overshadowing it.
The discussion about racism that has stemmed from this controversy is valuable and necessary. It is a teachable moment that raises important questions about why so many social services primarily serving people of colour are run by white people, and whether people of colour have an adequate say in how they operate.
It must also be emphasized that slut-shaming is unacceptable no matter who it is coming from – but especially if that person is a special advisor on Aboriginal women’s issues. This story has involved disappointing behaviour from parties on both sides, and apologies are warranted all around.