We can’t excuse people from racism because they have a Black friend
Meghan Markle may have left the UK in part to escape unfair media scrutiny, but the Duchess is back in the public eye once again—this time for incidents that she isn’t even a part of. On June 10, Toronto-based influencer Sasha Exeter took to Instagram to share what she calls her own “Amy Cooper” experience. (ICYMI, Amy Cooper is the white woman who threatened to call the police on a Black man who was bird-watching in NYC’s Central Park in late May.) Exeter—a Black woman—has been extremely vocal with her followers about the Black Lives Matter movement, detailing her own experiences with racism, including being called the N-word just two weeks ago while walking with her daughter.
In the new video, Exeter recounts a recent exchange with Canadian TV personality and celebrity stylist Jessica Mulroney. According to Exeter, after posting a call to action on her Instagram account for individuals with big followings to speak out against racism (a call to action that didn’t name anyone in particular—which is important to note), Mulroney—who had apparently taken offence—responded to Exeter in private DMs. “What happened next was a series of very problematic behaviour and antics that ultimately resulted in her sending me a threat in writing last Wednesday, June 3,” Exeter said. These antics included tone-policing Exeter (telling her to be nicer) and threatening to go to brands that the influencer had worked with to tell them about their interaction.
Exeter is a single mother, and Mulroney—a very privileged white woman—was essentially threatening her livelihood. “Textbook white privilege, really, in my personal opinion,” Exeter said. In response, Mulroney issued what was frankly a BS apology in the comments of the influencer’s post, before then privately DMing Exeter to threaten her again, this time with a libel suit. Then, on June 11, Mulroney issued another public apology on her Instagram account, asking Exeter to take over her account to educate her followers. And, umm, no?
After this all came to light, Mulroney was promptly dropped by CTV (the media channel that airs her show I Do, Redo), and brands she was a spokesperson for, including Hudson’s Bay and Smash + Tess.
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While Mulroney did eventually issue yet *another* apology, acknowledging that she was in the wrong and was taking time to step back and reflect on her actions, the narrative around the situation quickly began to change. As global outlets started reporting on the incident, another name kept popping up: Meghan Markle. FYI, Markle and Mulroney are longtime BFFs (as in, Mulroney’s kids were in the royal wedding). And soon, people were talking about “Meghan Markle’s Friend Jessica Mulroney,” commenting that they were aghast that someone who’s friends with one of the most famous Black women in the world—who’s also faced immense racism—would act in this way, almost as if Markle should have somehow prevented it.
And, honestly, that narrative has got to stop. We need to stop bringing Markle into this, because the only one responsible for Mulroney’s actions *is* Mulroney. Here’s why implicating the Duchess in all this is so harmful.
It displaces accountability for Mulroney’s actions
For one thing, referring to Mulroney based on her proximity to Markle fully deflects the attention from the real issue at hand—which is Mulroney’s white privilege and her weaponization of her perceived power to silence a Black woman—and instead emphasizes the fact that she’s BFFs with the now kind-of scandalized Duchess.
While, yes, part of the reason the headlines are all mentioning Markle has to do with name recognition, and the fact that people outside Canada *may* not know the Mulroney fam, by framing Jessia Mulroney—and by extension her actions—in relation to her friendship with Meghan Markle, in some ways we’re putting the onus on Markle; signalling that by virtue of being the bigger name and having bigger star power, she’s responsible for her friend’s behaviour.
Once again, this puts the onus on Black women to either educate offending parties on their actions and why they’re harmful, or fix the situation. By tying Markle to Mulroney and her recent actions, what are we really asking and expecting of her? That she—as Mulroney’s Black friend—should own up to the stylist’s mistakes? Publicly educate her? Make a statement? Do *something*?
The fact remains that it’s not Markle’s—or anyone’s—job to take responsibility for Mulroney’s actions. Because that’s just what they are, her actions.
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It suggests people who have a Black friend get a free pass
Not only are these stories in some ways holding Markle accountable for her friend, but the connection also reinforces the seriously problematic notion that non-Black people who have Black friends *can’t* be racist because, after all, they have Black friends! As journalist and former FLARE senior editor Ishani Nath tweeted: “Can we stop referencing Jessica Mulroney as ‘Meghan Markle’s Friend’? MM had nothing to do with JMs’s actions. Associating MM’s name with this story makes it seem like it’s surprising that white women with Black friends can also be ‘problematic’.”
Can we stop referencing Jessica Mulroney as “Meghan Markle’s Friend”? MM had nothing to do with JM’s actions. Associating MM’s name with this story makes it seem like it’s surprising that white women with Black friends can also be “problematic”.
— Ishani Nath (@ishaninath) June 11, 2020
Racism is systemic—and very often subtly entrenched in our society and behaviours. Just because someone has Black friends does not give them a pass for racist behaviour, nor does it mean that they aren’t susceptible to perpetrating it via microaggressions or overt prejudice. Mulroney may not have even *thought* that her threats were acts of racism—but in the power dynamic and the fact that she so overtly used her privilege as a white woman—they very much were.
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And the thing is that, often, people may use the fact that they have Black friends as some sort of excuse for their behaviour. As writer John Eligon detailed in a February 2019 article for The New York Times, non-Black people often subscribe to the myth that their proximity to Blackness is “proof” that they can’t be racist—even inadvertently so. Mulroney herself subtly subscribed to this in her first apology under Exeter’s post, referring to Markle in all but name when talking about her awareness of and experience with anti-Black racism, writing: “As I told you privately, I have lived a very public and personal experience with my closest friend where race was front and centre. It was deeply education. I learned a lot from that.”
Which is great, but if Mulroney’s actions of late have proven anything it’s that the stylist still has *a lot* to learn.