What Happened to Sasha Exeter
On Friday, Kathleen wrote a piece at Refinery29 about what Sasha Exeter shared on Instagram last Wednesday and how certain media outlets have covered the story. Many of them, from Vanity Fair to The Telegraph to the Canadian Press, have been characterising Jessica Mulroney leaning into her white privilege against Sasha Exeter as a “dispute” and you know how loaded that is: the picture that emerges from these kinds of headlines reduce the egregiousness of Jessica’s actions to two women scrapping over Instagram, thereby minimising the racial inequalities from where white privilege derives its power.
A friend of mine, however, pointed out to me that there are other words worth examining when discussing what happened to Sasha Exeter – specifically the words that Sasha, herself, used in describing how Jessica bullied her. In her Instagram video, Sasha said that:
“Listen, I’m by no means calling Jess a racist. 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. And that, my friends, gave her the momentary confidence to come for my livelihood in writing.”
Notice how, during this part of her story, when she’s recalling Jessica’s threats, Sasha prefaces by establishing that she is NOT “calling Jess a racist”. She goes on to describe how racism works – the combination of skin colour with power and privilege – but she starts off by telling people that she’s not here to declare that Jessica Mulroney is a racist. Not unlike how Samantha Marie Ware described Lea Michele last week in her interview with Variety:
“Does Lea even know what a microaggression is? I don’t know. All that her apology did was affirm that she hasn’t learned anything. Am I calling Lea a racist? No. Does Lea have racist tendencies? I think Lea suffers from a symptom of living in this world in an industry that is tailored to white people.”
It’s an interesting choice, and whether or not it was intentional, Sasha Exeter’s eight words, “I’m by no means calling Jess a racist”, make the rest of her story more palatable to white people, the very people who need to be convinced that what happened to Sasha is racist. And this is because of white fragility.
In her book, White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo, who is white, identifies white fragility as one of the major barriers to confronting and eradicating racism because white people are more afraid of being called a racist than the work it takes to battle racism. As Robin told Nosheen Iqbal in an interview for The Guardian last year:
“I know my people really well, and we will do whatever we can to mark ourselves as ‘not racist’”.
Basically, the minute you call a white person a racist, or any non-Black or non-Indigenous person of colour conditioned in white supremacy, they shut down. They can’t accept it about themselves and they then center their fear – in other words, they center themselves in the situation, which further prevents them from empathising with the Black community. Sasha Exeter, whether it was deliberate or instinctive, cut this reaction off at the pass and by stating that she’s not calling Jessica Mulroney a racist, she increased the likelihood that white members of her audience would be more receptive to her story.
You could say that this kind of workaround in the end only accommodates white fragility, and you’re probably right, but my point is that even when a Black woman is right, even when she has been victimised by a white woman flexing her white privilege over her and threatening her livelihood, and can prove it (!), she still has to perform the LABOUR of telling her story in a way that she knows will best prove her case to white people. It’s a double injustice. It is yet another example of how frustrating – to say the least – it is to be Black in the world. That when the facts are on your side, when you are telling the truth, you still have to serve it up so that it’s presentable to the white world.
And yet, there continue to be those who would bend over backwards to call this a “dispute”, an argument that got out of hand, and not what it is: white privilege, and white privilege is “a legacy and cause of racism”. You cannot separate the two. One is direct by-product of the other.
Sasha Exeter told her followers that she’s “not calling Jess a racist”. But she did tell her followers that what Jessica Mulroney did is racist.
Of course it is. She is white and we live in a world built on the pillars of systemic and institutionalised racism. So for those of us who are not Black and not Indigenous, even those of us who are people of colour, shaped by the racist DNA around us, while we may not call ourselves racist, we have all done racist things.
Have I at some point in my life seen a Black person and wondered if they were a criminal? As much as it sucks to admit this… “yes”. Have I otherised and even fetishised Blackness? Shamefully, yes. In the same breath would I have insisted that I’m not a racist? Yes too.
But there’s an opportunity here. If we can accept that we are all capable of racist actions, we can fix the actions. Changing a PERSON might feel like an overwhelming undertaking, but changing an ACTION is, well, actionable. A series of changed actions can be the beginning of a changed person. Which is where Jessica Mulroney fell short, again. A few times. Her first apology was grossly inadequate. She followed up with another threat – “Liable (sic) suit. Good luck.” And her follow-up apology which is (at post time) the most recent post on her Instagram feed was still sh-tty. Because she called it a “disagreement”, twice, when the only apology and the only effective apology would have been to acknowledge her white privilege. But she couldn’t, because of her white fragility.
"The events that have transpired over the last few days have made it clear that I have work to do. I realize more than ever how being a white, privileged woman has put me far ahead of so many, and in particular those in the Black community."
Jessica is acknowledging her white privilege IN GENERAL, but she hasn’t specifically connected her white privilege to what she did to Sasha which, by the way, isn’t even a true representation of it since it’s used as a descriptor, with a comma in between “white” and “privileged”. Is this nit-picking? I guess some would see it that way. But considering that she jeopardised the livelihood of a Black woman by threatening to use her influence and her status, aka her white privilege, just because her feelings were hurt, and at a time of civil unrest, I suggest that if you’re fixating on the “nit-picking”, you’re missing the bigger picture – and you may want to examine why.
The shortcomings of Jessica’s apologies, and her other attempts to address this situation, however, lead us to the next part of the conversation – which is how Jessica Mulroney moves through the world.
I have worked with Jessica’s husband, Ben Mulroney, since 2005, when I first joined Etalk as a reporter. Ben is the co-anchor of the show. I am currently the acting co-anchor, filling in for anchor Danielle Graham’s maternity leave. Ben and I have collaborated on almost every major entertainment event over the last decade including multiple Oscars, JUNO Awards, CSAs, the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, and this year, we were side by side at the Golden Globes, my first time covering the event. Given our professional history together, it might seem to you like Ben and I are close. And in many ways, we are close – in the way that two people can be close but only at work and only when we are working. I don’t see Ben on weekends. I don’t text him regularly. We do not overlap friend circles. I hardly go out. I have no idea where he hangs. At work though, yes, there is mutual respect and trust. I know I can go to him in a live situation and he will catch me, as he knows that I will catch him. He is to me, as Thor would say, “a friend from work”. Ben would appreciate that joke, but I think he’s probably mad at me.
I was already at Etalk when Ben started dating Jessica. We partied together a couple of times during the early part of their relationship when Jessica joined our work crew after the Junos one year and after the Oscars another year. Other than that, though, Jessica and I have not had a relationship. The reason I’m telling you this is because I have been asked /accused repeatedly whether or not my connection to Jessica also connects me to Meghan Markle and whether or not this has resulted in compromised coverage on this website – which is why there have been so many eyeballs coming here since Sasha Exeter called Jessica out, wondering if my “friendship” with Jessica would taint my analysis of this story.
I understand the conspiracy. After all, “coincidence or conspiracy?” is one of my favourite things to say. Those who believe the conspiracy point to a group photo that’s been circulating that was taken in November 2015 and posted on Jessica’s Instagram. (By the way, this is not the first time I’ve made clear my lack of relationship with Meghan Markle. I’ve talked about it in many interviews and we talked about it a lot a few years ago on the What’s Your Drama podcast when it was still called Sasha Answers – here’s a link to one of those episodes.) The people in the photo are: Ben and Jessica Mulroney; Meghan Markle and her then-boyfriend Cory Vitiello; Christina and Trevor Linden (then the president of the Vancouver Canucks); me and my husband Jacek; and Michael Bublé. The dinner was in celebration of Michael Bublé’s induction to Canada’s Walk of Fame. That was the first and only time I’ve spoken to Meghan Markle. We were seated at opposite ends of the table. It was only towards the end of the dinner that people ended up moving around and I found myself beside her. We talked for maybe 15 minutes, 20 tops. About dogs. She had a beagle, I have two beagles.
Since then, I’ve had no direct or indirect contact with Meghan. And I have very little contact with Jessica. The last time I think I saw Jessica in person was a year ago, at the CTV Upfront after-party. We talked, in a group, for ten minutes. I stayed for an hour and left because it was a school night. Ben and I do not talk about Meghan, believe it or not. Ben, in fact, does not talk about Meghan at all on Etalk. If you are a regular viewer of our show, you may notice that Ben never fronts any stories about Meghan. When we cover gossip about Meghan, and we gossip about her a lot on our show, it never involves Ben. He was, as you saw, front and centre, at Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding, and he didn’t talk about it after the fact on the show. He talked about his sons and their viral moment at church, but he did not go on our show to share anything about the wedding, the reception, the after-party. That’s how we avoid the conflict of interest. As for how it works on this site, mostly my coverage of Meghan is gossip analysis. Occasionally, yes, I might have the inside baseball about the timing of a story, or how it was placed where it was, or some insight about courtier machinations, but that sourcing comes from other places, and not the Mulroneys. In fact, I’ve been indirectly critical of Jessica in connection to Meghan on several occasions.
As you know, Jessica was known to be Meghan’s stylist. When we do fashion critiques of Meghan here, then, it’s an assessment of Jessica’s work. And I have definitely criticised Jessica’s work. If you need an example, the Roland Mouret dress in Ireland, where you could see the outline of her strapless bra, is one instance. Amateur hour” is how I referred to the styling of that outfit which speaks directly to Jessica’s stylist cred.
Independent of Jessica Mulroney, where Prince Harry and Meghan Markle are concerned, I have also snarked at their thirst – here’s a recent post where I write that they can be just as “thirsty for the spotlight as any celebrity”. And I talked about this a few weeks ago with Aminatou Sow on an episode of her Call Your Girlfriend podcast that was just posted last Friday. We discussed on her show that Harry and Meghan SHOULD be interrogated through a celebrity lens, but how tricky that dance is because of how racist the attacks against her have been by the British tabloids, any criticism, it seems, gets lumped in with all the racist f-cksh-t and, frankly, I don’t want to share space with that. To me, this isn’t favourtism, it’s fairness.
To go back to Jessica though, her friendship with Meghan Markle has been a personal and professional asset to Jessica, and Jessica only. I’ve no doubt that Jessica works hard, and I don’t want to take away any woman’s accomplishments and discredit her work, but at the same time, let’s not pretend that her Amy Coopering of Sasha Exeter would have been the worldwide story it was if not for her connection to Meghan of House Sussex. Those of us in Toronto media and in Jessica’s socialite circles would have cared about it, but there is no way that one Canadian influencer using her white privilege to threaten another Canadian influencer could have topped gossip headlines around the world if not for the Meghan adjacency. Which is why Jessica is so obsessively protective of their relationship, almost to the point of paranoia. She walks a fine line of playing it to her advantage. A few people have told me that it is specified clearly in her pitch deck on the second page that she will under no circumstances ever talk about Meghan Markle. But the first page of the deck is a photo of her …at Meghan Markle’s wedding. And you probably saw that in her first apology to Sasha Exeter, she brought up Meghan without naming her, “my closest friend”, leaning on their friendship as a way to seek forgiveness.
While her friendship with Meghan was used in this instance as a Hail Mary, it can also be read as a weapon, a reminder to Sasha and all of us out there watching this go down in real time, that she has a direct line to Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Jessica sets the terms of when and how she exploits that connection.
And that’s why Meghan Markle is not the secret bond between me, a gossip blogger, and Jessica Mulroney; it’s actually what keeps us naturally apart. Jessica cannot afford to risk anything that would push her best and most valued friend away, especially in proximity to someone who gossips constantly about her. Am I saying I wouldn’t have wanted that hookup? Please. Of course I would have. But given what you know now about Jessica Mulroney, given what you know about white privilege and power, WHY would Jessica Mulroney want to share that with me? Meghan Markle is Jessica Mulroney’s superpower. She keeps that superpower to herself.
This website, LaineyGossip.com, operates independently from CTV and its parent company Bell Media. CTV has no say over what I post here. I do not have to clear anything through them, and I have not cleared this post through them. LaineyGossip.com was founded prior to my joining Etalk and I wanted to retain control over what I built. Because both CTV and I have been very clear and respectful of my autonomy at LaineyGossip.com, I’ve been able to write what I want, even if it involves celebrities that Etalk might have a relationship with. For example, I will #NeverForget that Justin Timberlake is a narcissistic punk. Etalk, as an entertainment brand, would never and should never turn down access to JT. So I’ll never interview JT for Etalk. Works for me!
This is why all of this, my connection to her husband, Ben, and therefore my dotted line association to Jessica, has never been a problem. Until now.
Jessica Mulroney, up to this point, on her own, for her own non-Meghan Markle related activities, has never been LaineyGossip.com content. I don’t even talk about Real Housewives here, really, or all those Vanderpump people. And if I’m not posting about them, there’s no reason for me to post about Jessica. The dramas and scandals of Toronto personalities, when those dramas and scandals have nothing to do with one of the most famous women in the world, do not matter to the majority of people who come here.
But when Jessica Mulroney Amy Coopered Sasha Exeter, it went beyond Toronto city limits. The story is international. Remember a couple of weeks ago when Samantha Marie Ware called out Lea Michele and since then more people have been emboldened to come forward with their stories about Lea’s bad behaviour? This is where we find ourselves with Jessica Mulroney.
And THAT’s when the conversation comes back around to white privilege and where I can concede that there is a conflict of interest. There’s a reason Sasha Exeter was so afraid to tell her story – Jessica Mulroney has ties to all kinds of brands and brand marketers in Canada and so many of them, aware of her fame by association to Meghan Markle, either work with her or want to work with her. She is at the top of the invitation list for every event. And while they’ll never admit to it now, she is granted special privileges, and some of those privileges include behaviour that wouldn’t be tolerated by almost any other influencer in the city. Before last week, before Sasha Exeter told her story, there were a lot of people in Canadian media with their own Jessica Mulroney stories. Some of them are thinking of telling them now after Sasha opened the door. But they don’t work with her husband.
Ben is one of our network’s biggest stars. He has a lot of seniority. I too am a face of the network. I too have seniority. And, being the host of three Bell Media properties myself (etalk, The Social, and Cravings: The Aftershow), I too have privileges. And still, even I’m afraid of the Mulroneys. Because I am a woman of colour. Because I don’t have family connections. Because I run a gossip blog which means I’m not as “family-friendly” or “safe” to many brands. And I depend on brand partnerships too, especially now during the pandemic, when advertising budgets have been scaled back and digital ad rates have plummeted. So if you do want the gossip about Jessica – and that’s probably why you came here today and are still reading this loooooong post – this is what I can tell you: the Toronto arts and media circle is pretty small so you hear things. People are afraid of retribution. I am afraid of retribution – and I guess I’ve just made it worse with this post. Retribution might not come this week or next week, but in three or six months, when Jessica’s white privilege (which is already working in her favour, since as small as the Toronto arts and media circle is, it’s also homogeneous, and many of the people who work at the media, marketing, and branding agencies are also largely white so they identify and sympathise with her) is reactivated. She has powerful allies. If I’m worried, then, and I have a platform, imagine the people out there who don’t have my advantages.
Word on the street right now is that Jessica is still watching people’s Instagram stories, paying attention to what people are saying, and people are nervous that she’s taking names and making a list. It’s also been shared on the whisper network that she’s telling those who are continuing to engage with her privately that “there are two sides to every story”, suggesting that she doesn’t feel she’s as in the wrong as she actually is.
Many of us “liked” Sasha Exeter’s post last week and we’re pretty sure that the Mulroneys are keeping track of them. On Wednesday night, when all of this was going down, I can tell you for sure that at least one email was sent out from the Mulroney camp to someone who “liked” Sasha’s post that was mildly threatening. It was an email that sent a message and this is the way the message was received and internalised: you’re on watch, so you should think about whose side you’re on.
Imagine the confidence that one must have to be able to write and send an email like this on Wednesday night, while so many people are hearing about a case of white privilege aggression against a Black woman, while Sasha Exeter had exactly zero confidence when she was explaining the FACTS of what happened to her. But this is what makes white privilege so intimidating: it’s wrong and strong; white privilege can be STRONGER when it’s wrong. And a lot us enable it. I have enabled it my whole life with my own white-adjacency, my own limited advantages. I have bought into the idea that white privilege can’t be confronted. And my complacency has made me complicit in the endorsement of white privilege, allowing white privilege to flourish and damage.
People like me are the reason Jessica Mulroney felt so entitled to threaten Sasha Exeter. It seemed so…easy, didn’t it? Like it probably wasn’t the first time? Over and over again Jessica Mulroney demonstrated her white privilege. Sasha Exeter called her out and in response she threatened her. Sasha went public and she flexed her Meghan Markle friendship, half-assed her apology, and then, once again, threatened her with a “liable (sic) suit”. Wrong and strong is terrifying. White privilege is terrifying – it terrified Sasha and it terrifies so many others. Still.
Because even though Jessica may be humbled, she is still a member of two influential families. She still has access to very influential people. She has been pleading her case to other people with white privilege who see themselves in her and don’t want the same thing to happen to them. Meanwhile the Sasha Exeters of the world have to keep looking over their shoulders. Think about how that must feel, to go about your day, trying to just do your thing, while always on alert for when white privilege will strike again.
White privilege is self-serving. Jessica Mulroney’s relationship with Meghan Markle was a benefit to her, and only her. In fact, while she benefited from it, it has become a liability for everyone else. Because it amplified her white privilege, and she wielded it over other people. So that even when she f-cked up and jeopardised a relationship that was a bonus to her only, so many other people have to pay the price. Other Black women like Tracy Moore, her friend, have been dragged into it. Mindy Kaling’s been dragged into it (Jessica styles her) as people are up in her comments demanding an explanation for their friendship. Charities have been affected.
And still, there are people who are afraid to stand up to white privilege. The ones who do stand up to it have so much to lose. Sasha Exeter shouldn’t have to lose.