I have so many questions concerning this growing blackface/brownface controversy swirling around Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. In case you do to, I’ve tried to answer them for myself.
Justin Trudeau: isn’t this the same guy that who’s all cool with Hasan Minhaj and stuff?
Yes, it’s the guy who’s taken time out of being Prime Minister of Canada to be interviewed by Minhaj on the Daily Show about Canada’s welcoming of Syrian refugees and creating “an inclusive society”, and a couple weeks ago on Minhaj’s Minority Report discussing environmentalism and stuff (though being a bit cagey about Canada’s policies toward big oil at home and selling weapons to Saudi Arabia).
Don’t these appearances indicate that he’s progressive and cool with diversity (Saudi stuff notwithstanding)?
Sure, that seems to have been the general consensus, as he’s been pretty firmly on the progressive side of things like feminism, indigenous peoples, and LGBTQ2 (as the acronym goes in Canada) communities. although he’s been dinged in the past for at least being a bit clueless, like when he visited India and went around in traditional Indian clothing and also invited (then uninvited) a convicted Sikh terrorist to dinner. There’s also been an accusation that he groped a female reporter in 2000 (which would be around the time of the most recent blackface image).
Ok, I’ve heard about Trudeau having some big scandal for a while now; is this the same thing?
No, that earlier scandal was about his alleged attempts to pressure the Canadian Attorney General to go easy on a big corporation that has been accused of paying major bribes to now-deceased Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi for a decade in the early 2000s. So standard political corruption, big money stuff.
Ah. Getting away from Trudeau for a minute. This is Canada. Isn’t it like super-diverse?
And isn’t this where black people fled TO during the days of slavery?
Yes, various sites in Canada served as destination points for the Underground Railroad, which helped tens of thousands of runaway American slaves find freedom.
So it must have been super welcoming to black people back then right?
Well, relatively so perhaps. Slavery was officially outlawed there in 1833, but had largely abolished before then.
Does that mean that this whole blackface thing is a recent American export to Canada?
Not so recent. It seems that minstrel shows, featuring white performers in blackface, were popular in Canada in the 1800s. Both English and French-speaking Canadians enjoyed the shows, some of which were put on by troupes visiting from the United States, some by local performers. The French Canadians even had their own term for them: “soirées éthiopiennes”.
But surely this wasn’t mainstream like in the US?
Well, do you count the Canadian National Anthem as “mainstream.” Because the guy who wrote “O, Canada,” Calixa Lavallée, was in a minstrel troupe.
Oh. (Canada). Still, that was a long time ago, right?
Apparently the whole minstrel show/blackface thing made a comeback in the 20th century, regaining popularity in the 1930s through 1960s.
Well, America wasn’t exactly Disneyland for black people during that time period, either (except for actual Disneyland, which was never segregated, not even in the 1950s when it first opened; granted, Disney had some other racial issues, but nonetheless, yay). Still, Trudeau is too young for that to have been his background, and these photos/videos of him are obviously more recent. So, he was probably a dumb high school (maybe college) kid when he did it, right?
Well, the recent images span a wide period of time, from the early 1990s through 2001. While Trudeau was a student in the older images, in 2001 he was a 29 year old TEACHER at an elite prep school, walking around slathered up in face paint and a turban.
Ok, that’s bad. But he apologized right?
Yes, he’s apologized and copped to the fact that the pictures are racist without equivocating too much. But he also claimed that he didn’t realize that what he was doing was racist at the time (including when he was 29. In 2001).
Maybe that’s true? Maybe he lived in a largely white bubble where people didn’t think through stuff like that or have people around them to give them a mean side-eye?
Perhaps. He says that “the layers of privilege” in which he’s lived prevented him from realizing what a big deal this was. But he also didn’t mention any of this until the pictures emerged. Surely if you’ve appeared in blackface multiple times, you probably remember having done so, and (hopefully) figured out by 2019 that it was a bad thing to do.
So this always gets me with these kinds of scandals. Why not get ahead of it and admit to it before someone else outs you?
That’s what I’m wondering (which is why I wrote the above rhetorical question, since this article isn’t really a dialogue). I guess there’s not a “good” time to drop “Oh by the way, I know you didn’t ask, but I used to do blackface. That was f’ing racist, I’ve figured out. My bad.” And so the temptation is to just hope it never comes up, and plan on dealing with in when it does. Of course the danger in that, beyond making your apologies seem less sincere, is that it might come up just before a tight election and feed into a growing narrative that you are not the shining star people initially held you to be.
Will this lead to something good, like starting a big conversation about race and inclusion in Canada?
I honestly don’t know enough about Canadian politics to say, but I hope so (while not remaining particularly optimistic that it will). I’ve been disappointed by similar moments in the US, so I’m not holding my breath.