Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Robinson denies anger driving him

Riding out storm a challenge

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Eric Robinson is adamant he is not an angry man.

These days, it would be easy to conclude otherwise. Last week, we learned Robinson, the highest-ranking aboriginal politician in the NDP government, used the term "do-good white people" to describe women who held a burlesque performance to promote the sale of a calendar to raise money for Osborne House, a women's shelter.

Robinson felt the fundraiser was in poor taste, especially considering the cause was a safe haven for abused women. He did not say this publicly; his comments were revealed in an email exchange that was released to the media by Osborne House itself.

In interviews immediately following this revelation, Robinson was unrepentant, arguing that based on the racism he had suffered at the hands of white people, he was entitled to use the term. Those comments not only undermined an apology he issued late last week, it has kept the Tories baying for his resignation.

There are many within the NDP and government who were not surprised when Robinson's comments were revealed. Sources described the veteran politician as "prickly" and "angry." Some said in debate over policy, he was quick to raise the issue of race. That he could be demanding and quick to show temper, especially if he thought his opinions about aboriginal policy were being undermined by a non-aboriginal colleague or staff.

'I do think a lot of people think I am angry. But I think those people don't know me' -- Eric Robinson

Without much prodding, Robinson acknowledged he is aware some see him as "the angry Indian." It is a characterization he vehemently denies.

"I do think a lot of people think I am angry," Robinson said in an interview. "But I think those people don't know me. Am I that ugly, that I look angry?

"I don't know. I have tried to operate on the basis of respect and love; that's what I was taught as a child and that's how I've tried to live."

And yet, Robinson also conceded that his childhood -- which included four years in a residential school and being sexually abused -- have "shaped the rest of my life." In legislative debates and in speeches, he has talked openly about those experiences. He has also called upon those experiences as context for his inflammatory email remarks.

Robinson maintained his use of the term "do-good white people" was wrong, although he also expressed concern he was being singled out largely because of race. And that some of those who have described him as angry are in fact just intimidated by "an outspoken Indian."

The challenge facing Robinson as he tries to ride out this storm is this is an issue that stokes resentment among a lot of different groups.

White is a common term used in the aboriginal lexicon. Many aboriginal people who live with racism in every day lives do feel entitled to use the term "white" and to object if necessary to what they consider patronizing gestures from non-aboriginal society. They will see Robinson as a kind of hero for speaking his mind, and bemoan efforts to punish or repudiate him.

Similarly, many non-aboriginals who have been frequently whipped by the long stick of political correctness will react with anger that an aboriginal leader can get away with a charged, racially motivated comment when they constantly walk on eggshells.

It would help all of us through this complex story if we accept a few undeniable realities.

'Do-good white people' are a fairly well-established phenomenon on this planet. The history of white people is strewn with a lot of corpses, killed by misguided kindness and generosity. As well, white people have patronized, coddled and, ultimately, dehumanized cultures all over the planet in the name of some worthy cause or another. Let's own that and move on.

Second, we understand that a white guy can say "do-good white people" with impunity but a person of colour cannot. And vice versa. There is an intrinsic hypocrisy that governs rules for the appropriateness of language and humour across all kinds of religious, racial and cultural boundaries. And although it is maddening, most of us are completely, utterly comfortable with the hypocrisy.

Where does all that leave a man like Robinson?

The question here is not whether Robinson the residential-school survivor can use the term 'do-good white people' with impunity. It's whether Robinson the deputy premier and cabinet minister is entitled to use it. In general, we know the same words could be uttered by two different people, and have two entirely different results. As a political leader, that realization will not spare Robinson the suffering he has coming at the hands of the Opposition.

For now, Robinson has been forced to fight the allegations he is a racist with a recitation of his long and decorated political career.

Robinson should be proud of his record. At the same time, he should be concerned that simply because of what he said, he needs to put all that effort into reminding everyone what he has done.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 28, 2013 A4

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