Jessica Mulroney shows how privilege can be wielded

    Jun 16, 2020

    Erica Ifill is an economist, columnist for the Hill Times and co-host of the Bad + Bitchy podcast. This article was first published in the Globe and Mail on June 16, 2020.

    Who needs the police force when the Laurentian elite can just abuse you directly?

    In a nearly 12-minute video posted to Instagram, Black lifestyle influencer and blogger Sasha Exeter explained how, when she posted a generic call for Instagram influencers to speak out on Black Lives Matter and the anti-police brutality protests, Jessica Mulroney – stylist, heiress to the Browns Shoes fortune and daughter-in-law of Canada’s 18th prime minister – took offence.

    Although Ms. Exeter never named the socialite specifically in her call to action, she says Ms. Mulroney reacted as if she did and, over the span of a week, launched into a textbook display of bullying and harassment tactics to excuse her lack of support for the protests, making herself the victim and Ms. Exeter the aggressor for posting her initial call. Ms. Mulroney then allegedly even threatened her livelihood, claiming that she called companies about Ms. Exeter and musing about suing for libel (or, as she wrote, “liable,” because white fragility is not mutually exclusive from bad spelling).

    Ms. Exeter’s words – and the fear and anxiety behind them – expressed what Black women have experienced from white women in the professional space for decades: bullying and abuse that turn Black women into the nail for the hammer of white supremacy, which is then wielded by powerful women. This is made possible by intersections of race, class and gender that have underpinned our socioeconomic hierarchy since First Contact. The privilege that Jessica Mulroney wields is a power that places white, cis-gendered, heterosexual males at the top, followed by their female counterparts; they are second-in-command in a hierarchy of white supremacy, in which Black women are near the bottom. Ms. Mulroney, bolstered by the elite connections of institutional power that Ms. Exeter lacks, felt comfortable enough bullying a Black woman for a perceived threat to her brand – which is, of course, just another way she amasses power. “Listen, I’m by no means calling Jess a racist,” Ms. Exeter said in her video. “But what I will say is this: She is very well aware of her wealth, her perceived power and privilege because of the colour of her skin.”

    White privilege is the necessary and sufficient condition for the perpetuation of white supremacy, but this situation seems like a case of misogynoir. The term, introduced into the lexicon by queer feminist scholar Moya Bailey, is “an attempt to force black women into boxes and make us more palatable. It’s the idea that we should never scream, never fight, never take ownership of ourselves, because the minute we do, we’ll be painted as ‘angry black women’ and dismissed.” As Black feminist activist Chanju Mwanza wrote in Medium, “Black women are seen as threatening, loud and angry every time they try to make a point.” Ms. Exeter acknowledges this reality in her video, saying that it “wasn’t enough” that Ms. Mulroney went after her career: “She made herself the victim, of course, me the villain.”

    We saw a version of this weaponization of white women’s innocence in the story of Amy Cooper, a white, Canadian-born woman who called the police on a Black bird-watcher in New York’s Central Park when he asked her to leash her dog, making explicit on that call that he was “an African-American man threatening my life.” “Now, not only is Jessica very well aware of her white privilege,” Ms. Exeter said, “but, just like her fellow Canadian Amy Cooper, she spewed out that threat so effortlessly.”

    Ms. Mulroney also deployed a classic defence: that she had a Black friend. “As I told you privately, I have lived a very public and personal experience with my closest friend where race was front and centre,” she wrote in response to Ms. Exeter’s video, referring to Meghan Markle. But even before she met and married Prince Harry, Ms. Markle represented a comfortable level of Blackness that didn’t threaten the white social order; she’s biracial, and therefore light-skinned, and can easily mix amongst Canada’s elite. Now, as the Duchess of Sussex, her proximity to the epicentre of white, colonialist power overshadows that of Ms. Mulroney’s, so she gets invited into the latter’s circles.

    As Canada grapples with its own productive capacity for perpetuating structural racism as a function of white supremacy – amid global protests against police brutality and anti-Black racism – the swift action taken by Cityline, CTV, Kleinfeld and Good Morning America to part ways with Ms. Mulroney is more indicative of the changing social attitudes toward anti-Black racism and, more specifically, Black Lives Matter. The New York Times reported that “by a 28-point margin, Civiqs [an online survey research firm] finds that a majority of American voters support the movement, up from a 17-point margin before the most recent wave of protests began.” (I would rather cite Canadian data, but that would require, well, data.)

    But it is also only logical that Ms. Mulroney, who has enjoyed a solid career as an influencer, has lost work. In her field, success is measured by one’s ability to recognize and capitalize on trends – and Black Lives Matter is, if nothing else, trending across the culture. By failing to do her job well, Ms. Mulroney has tied her brand to the infamy associated with pivoting to wrong side of history.