Osborne House controversy reveals ignorance on both sides

Photo by: Dano Tanaka

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.

8 Comments on "Osborne House controversy reveals ignorance on both sides"

  1. Robert Paulson | September 3, 2013 at 11:47 am |

    Good to see an opinion piece qualifies as news… Replace white with any other descriptor and you’d be calling for his resignation.

    • Yeah! The comment editor has no business writing opinion pieces in the comment section! Commentary is not her job, and not what the comment section is for!

  2. I wonder why the human rights commission allowed this complaint to be filed alleging “racism”. it doesn’t allege “harassment” or “discrimination” which are specific offenses under the human rights code, but just a broad accusation of racism, which is not technically an offense unto itself under the human rights code. The commission’s intake officers are always trying to talk people out of filing complaints. For example, I tried to file a complaint against..a service provider…and I was told by intake staff that my complaint would be dismissed because it was an internal matter and the commission didn’t have jurisdiction. When I actually filed my complaint it was delayed because of a preliminary investigation to determine whether or not I had a real political belief, but not the jurisdiction issue previously identified.

    On the other side, I agree that Robinson’s make a poor choice of words, and he should have been reprimanded more harshly by the Premier.

  3. One can fully recognize and support the rights, sexual expression and agency of women while recognizing that exploitation can and does happen under capitalism and patriarchy. So front line workers take a harm reduction approach.

    The third wave is about centering the voice of people of colour, so we need to hear things like this about their experience of being sexualized:

    http://www.policyalternatives.ca/sites/default/files/uploads/publications/Manitoba_Pubs/2005/The_Unheard_Speak_Out.pdf

    http://tothecurb.wordpress.com/2011/05/13/slutwalk-a-stroll-through-white-supremacy/

    I expected better from the ‘toban and the rest of the media, do your homework!

  4. Nahanni Fontaine’s comment is far from ignorant and sexist. While you (and I) may disagree that burlesque is exploitative, it is definitely not empowering for *all* women. Because of her many years of working on issues of missing and murdered Aboriginal women, and because over 80% of women served by Osborne House are Aboriginal, I can only assume that Nahanni Fontaine is thinking about how some of Osborne House’s clients may have sexually exploited in the sex industry.

    This is not just “old guard” 2nd wave feminism – it’s a critique of white-dominated sex-positive feminism that doesn’t take the sexual exploitation of Aboriginal women into account. Of course many women choose to engage in sex work or in burlesque dancing, and find it empowering. But for other women, sex work is not a choice.

    Debates about sex work and sexual empowerment are often framed as archaic and prudish vs. modern and liberated, but I think that the middle ground exists where we can acknowledge differences in experiences. It is we (white middle-class feminists) who are ignorant. If you are a feminist and your instinct is to “take sides” with the organizers and performers of the burlesque fundraiser, please take a moment to think about why some women do not feel empowered by what empowers you. (there are many excellent critiques of SlutWalk by women of colour, for example)

    I don’t believe that Fontaine had any intention to shame the performers and organizers. When she wrote that the burlesque event showed “total disregard for women’s and girls’ dignity and sacredness,” perhaps she didn’t mean the burlesque dancers themselves, but sexually exploited women and girls.

  5. As no one commenting has seen the complaint – and I have – they do not know the grounds cited, nor the fact an intake person at the MHRC reviewed the emails of Robinson and Fontaine and provided the forms based on a preliminary evaluation that there were reasonable grounds to believe the Act had been breached. You can’t just waltz in there and grab an intake form, the complaints are screened first. To be clear, th e forms were filed with the support of staff at MHRC and not just dropped on a desk.

    As for the notion that white people cannot be victims of racism under the Act, I suggest those proponents shelve their radical ideology and either accept the law applies EQUALLY to ALL citizens, or lobby the NDP to amend the Act and exclude specific races from legislative protection. Good luck when the Charter challenge to that is filed.

    A careful reading of the emails prove the insults hurled by Fontaine and Robinson were clearly directed at Judt, the Board of Directors, AND the organizers and supporters of the event which was a calendar launch with a band and a performance of burlesque ( a far cry from a night of “dehumanizing women”), and their remarks are based on a shared racial bias towards “white people”.

    I note that many apologists for Robinson, including Free Press columns by Dan Lett, Tim Sale, Melissa Martin and a Marxist professor, all left out any mention of the term “ignorant” used by Robinson to describe the targets of his hate, or that he said the event “FURTHER demonstrates” his racist beliefs, meaning his racist viewpoint was already well established within the government and with the THREE staffers who received his email and did not speak out against it.

    Lastly I shall be publicly revealing the failed redacted document, plus additional emails from Fontaine and Robinson’s office as yet unreported that will unravel the attempt to cover-up this disgraceful racist bias within the NDP government, on City Circus on Shaw TV later this month. Stay tuned.

  6. NAIL ON THE HEAD. Submit this far and wide, please!

  7. While I do question whether the comments (as currently available to public knowledge) made by Eric Robinson about “the ignorance of do-good white people” were racist (seems more like slightly insensitive or less than “PC”), I disagree with the author of this article’s claim that “any human rights complaint alleging racism against a white person should be automatically dismissed”. Racism can be towards any race, even those who are not the minority. Just because a person is white or privileged, doesn’t mean that any negative comment or act regarding their race or because of their race is not racist or is not an issue.

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