Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is putting on his best shame-faced demeanour today. Trudeau has positioned himself as a bastion of inclusivity, multiculturalism, and fights against racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination. When photos surfaced in the last few hours of Trudeau painted in Brownface and posing with students, it set Trudeau’s entire public image into question. “Who really is Justin Trudeau?”, journalists are asking. Jody Wilson-Raybould—originally part of Trudeau’s team but now an independent in a controversy that includes suggestions of discrimination—says of Trudeau:
“I will say I’m incredibly proud to be an Indigenous person in this country, one that has experienced racism and discrimination. It’s completely unacceptable for anybody in a position of authority and power to do something like that” (CBC)
CNN has covered the public sin too, briefly explaining the hurtful history around white people taking on skin colour in play, parody, and persecution, and include a clip of Trudeau apologizing. This activity has an even deeper meaning in America, where Blackface was a public form of mockery and discrimination, bound up with all kinds of meanness, ignorance, and demeaning stereotypes.
Part of the story is no doubt the place where Trudeau has set himself within the 2019 federal election campaign. Each of the four parties capable of forming a government have had weird or terrible things surface about candidates, including some gaffs by leaders and some skeletons that have tumbled out of pretty ancient closets. Trudeau’s response has been, typically, to condemn what are some deeply past issues and say that the current candidate is not fit to be in government. If this Brownface Photo was any other candidate—even in his own party—Trudeau would say that candidate would have to step aside.
The hypocrisy may not just be on one side. If this was a conservative leader, there would be a call for common sense from the right-wing commentators and media. We’ll see, but I suspect what will emerge is a critique of hypocrisy on the right, statements of stern regret from Liberals, and condemnation of racism by people on the left.
In his own case, at least, Trudeau is asking for common sense.
“It was something that I didn’t think was racist at the time, but now I recognize, it was something racist to do” (National Post)
In a Macleans article Cheryl Thompson, author of Beauty in a Box: Detangling the Roots of Canada’s Black Beauty Culture (2019), notes that it would be unusual a generation ago for someone to appear in public in Blackface. There is context, Prof. Thompson argues, but people in Trudeau’s cabinet who are minorities should be holding his feet to the fire.
I agree that there is context. For my part, it is sheer ignorance. I didn’t know what a Golliwog was growing up, or any tradition about Black Pete. I didn’t know about American Blackface performance and comedy until quite late, less than a decade ago. I honestly did not know that dressing in Black Drag was a thing, or why it would matter if it was. Until reading that Macleans piece, I didn’t even know the Canadian history of these things. Growing up as a kid, the only black people I ever met were people from Africa—farmers and social activists connected with Farming Helping Farmers. “African American” to me was The Cosby Show, and then the music industry as I got older.
I grew up in a homogeneous community, so I was truly ignorant of these issues. I knew about slavery and racism, but mediated through parents and teachers and film and many, many books. I was brought up to resist racism (and other isms), but my adult life has been an education of encounter. It wasn’t until I was older that I really studied black history and the holocaust, that I saw racism baldly out in public in Toronto and southern Alberta and the US, and that “resisting hate” became a much deeper and more difficult thing in my own heart.
Indeed, it took me being a minority to know on a more deeper level what these things might mean. I lived in a land where people of my race were used on television for the bad guys, where “Gaijin” is a dirty word used commonly, where I was not able to rent certain apartments or go to certain country clubs, and where I could never be casual or invisible. Though I was safe and happy in that land, it gave me a tiny glimpse at what was happening in North America that I could not see because of my place in that world.
I think it is okay, then, to put some context behind Trudeau’s photographic faux pas.
I want to be clear, though, that I am not defending Trudeau. A thing is morally wrong, even if you don’t know it is morally wrong. Time and distance, new experiences and changes in our public conversation—these things will give us a new perspective on the immoral act, and hopefully bring us to a point of repentance or even reparation. But the thing itself remains wrong. Given the history of racism and slavery in the West, and given the history of American Blackface abuse, manipulation, and hurt, if it is wrong in 2019 to wear Blackface or Brownface, it would have been wrong in 2001. The 18 years since only gives time for that sin to sink into our consciousness. Jagmeet Singh, the leader of the NDP, gave a very personal response as a Sikh man that is worth reading to see the damage these actions still create:
“Seeing this image today—the kids that see this image—the people that see this image—are going to think about all the times in the life that they were made fun of, that they were hurt, that they were hit, that they were insulted, that they were made to feel less because of who they are” (see the transcription here at the Huffington Post).
I am not saying that Trudeau wasn’t wrong and hurtful. What I am saying is that I am not sure that I am morally superior or less racist than Trudeau because you will never see a picture of me in Blackface or Brownface.
You will see other pictures of me. I am in Whiteface in various places because I worked as a professional clown. I even produced a low-budget, 12-episode television show with Patches the Clown as the star. I was a small-time professional actor, playing local parts and historical figures. Pretty badly, I might add. I was hired because I had the courage to do anything, I had a loud, clear voice, and I could grow a beard as a teenager. These traits, plus a love for story and stage, gave me a space for a few years where I was taking on roles on a quasi-regular basis.
And like Trudeau, I once played the role of a West Asian person in public. It wasn’t Aladdin in gaudy brown paint, but Jesus of Nazareth, stripped and beaten and hung on a cross. The only reason I wasn’t Brownface in that role is because of the inherent racism of Western culture, presuming that Jesus was white. Or white-ish. Unlike Megyn Kelly of FoxNews, most educated people know that Jesus was not truly white. But because of our history of incredible art and painful race relations, we have this whiteness built into our religion and culture. Still, I played the role of an Asian Jew—and many other roles as I used drama as part of my work for many years. I still take on characters when I teach—some of them offensive—though the last costume I wore was as a goth (again, Whiteface), and before that the Paperbag Princess’s jerk boyfriend, Ronald.
What I am saying, then, is that it is a historical accident that I have never dressed in Brownface or Blackface. I would not do so now, but it is likely I would have in high school in the late 1900s, back when Aladdin might have been a part I would have tried out for.
I am not morally superior to Trudeau, or less racist. Though I deplore his politics, Trudeau has probably done more than the vast majority of Canadians to foster an environment of a certain kind of inclusivism, including resisting racism. I am not better than him because I haven’t worn Blackface. Its just a sin of the past I didn’t happen to commit.
Likewise, I grew up believing it was wrong to use racial slurs or gay slurs to joke with or hurt people. I grew up in a feminist household, so from an early age I saw the damage of sexism. It isn’t likely that you’ll see a commentary emerge with me saying something terrible about groups of people (though I have said some incredibly stupid things in the past). I’m glad I didn’t do those things back then, and I am not tempted to do them now, because I have caused less damage to other people and to my own humanity. But my past record has to do with how I was raised and my young adult encounter with Christian morality more than anything else.
In all this, what I am arguing for is a shift in the way that we learn as a community. Trudeau’s own use of shame and moral indignation as a weapon for political gain in a hunt for moral purity has been turned upon himself. This has happened to other puritanical movements–even the Puritans, who are known today for stoning adulteresses rather than educating girls. On his pathway of moral superiority, Trudeau’s legacy may be the same. And, because of these tactics, his policies of inclusiveness will fail. It will be minorities, immigrants, women, and people of colour who will suffer because Trudeau invested himself in throwing stones at ideological adulterers of his age.
Instead, in the strength of a vision of a community that loves diversity—and in the practical admission that we are learning these things and growing as a culture—I hope that our political leaders will take the stones they are tempted to raise against others and use those stones to build pathways to a better future (or even ebenezers and inukshuk to remember the past). Trudeau is a bigot only to the extent that we are all walking around with sinews of sexism and racism and classism in our souls. We are a broken people. We are doing broken things right now as a culture that we can’t even see, but that a future generation will think are blatantly obvious. But I believe that we can learn as a community, provided we have the clarity of vision and courage of conviction to grow.
I think it is time to change the shame-face, stone-throwing, weapon-wielding approach to the sins of the past. Voters can decide whether Trudeau is the right leader for our time and our people. Unless social and political leaders learn some intellectual humility and moral compassion, though, this slim chance of making a safer, better, more beautiful future of racial harmony and social peace will pass us by.
Missing that chance, I think, really would be a shame.