America has always had a contentious relationship with multiculturalism and, specifically, its tendency to simultaneously devalue and co-opt Black culture and Black bodies. One of the more blatant and visible examples of this is in the long tradition of white people using “blackface” and the practice of minstrelsy to demean people of color, perpetuate damaging stereotypes and repurpose elements of Black culture as tools of white supremacy. This has been a well-documented problem in the United States, but the issue recently became a major story in Canada, the supposed land of liberalism’s all-encompassing embrace.
The reality is that Canada, like everywhere, has plenty of its own entrenched racism and white nationalism, it just doesn’t seem to be as loud or public as it has historically been in the US. The surge of global “alt-right” ideology that coincided with Donald Trump’s rise to power in the United States also swept through its northern neighbor even as Justin Trudeau became the new standard-bearer for progressive politics in the Age of Trump. Sadly, as the dashing Canadian prime minister carried his forward-looking message into a re-election campaign, images emerged in the media that challenged his presentation as the darling of the global left.
Apparently, as a nearly 30-year-old high school instructor enrobed in thick “layers of privilege”, Trudeau decided, as he had on an unknown number of other occasions, to don blackface and caricature costume in the name of entertainment and festivity. I have not really looked at the images, but I have heard descriptions and I am left disappointed, puzzled but not entirely shocked. It’s easy to spot racists when they wrap themselves in white sheets or sear swastikas into their skin. It’s not difficult to ID them when they flaunt their MAGA merchandise and verbally abuse people speaking an unfamiliar language be demanding Talk English or go back where you came from. But how can we defend against the white liberal champions with their infectious hope, boundless optimism and loving words? What are we supposed to do when we discover our progressive heroes have dark shoe polish under their fingernails?
There are innumerable ways to be racist, and the worst are arguably the ones where the perpetrator is willfully ignorant or, as Trudeau suggests, so elite that they do not even realize what they’re doing is problematic. It’s all well and good for the PM to acknowledge he comes from an insulated world of privilege and power, but his mea culpa does little to elucidate his rationale. If Trudeau is not, as he and many others claim, a racist, then what is he? Stupid? Insensitive? Those seem to be the only options remaining. I’m reminded of the infamous “affluenza teen” who argued that his family wealth and his own privileged lifestyle had somehow damaged his moral compass and should excuse him from the consequences of manslaughter. Is it possible to be so far removed from the realities of ordinary society that someone can lose his or her ability to determine (or care) if their actions are racist or not?
I find it difficult to simply explain away these misdeeds as just the innocence of youth or the result of elite upbringing, although perhaps there is something to it. As a 30-year-old white male, I can say with absolute certainty that I have never paraded around in blackface. That being said, I have never approached the rarified status enjoyed by the Canadian prime minister, so either I was brought up knowing blackface was a bad thing (kudos to my family) or lower-middle class people of a largely middling political bent have no reason or opportunity to employ it. So what puts this kind of toxic idea into someone’s mind? What compels educated, intelligent, ostensibly ‘woke’ white people to commit such a violence? I do not know what Mr. Trudeau’s politics were 20 years ago, but, as the son of a celebrated Liberal Party leader and third longest serving Canadian PM, I suspect they were far enough to the left that he would have expressed genuine outrage if the PM at that time was found to have been playing the minstrel. This, perhaps, is the most unsettling part of the entire fiasco. Too often liberal-minded people are quick to condemn the obvious racism and sexism they observe in others, yet excuse their own subtle transgressions as mistakes of youth or a short-sighted joke awry, if they have the awareness to acknowledge the acts at all.
Again, speaking only for myself, I feel that Trudeau, even with these troublesome actions in his personal history, is a much better option for the leadership of Canada that Andrew Scheer, leader of the Conservatives and someone influenced by Stephen Harper and the insufferable Doug Ford. I cannot speak to Jagmeet Singh, current leader of the New Democratic Party (NDP/NPD) as I’ve read little about him or his platform. However, his party may well prove a viable alternative to the Liberals come 21 October. Whether or not Justin Trudeau’s blackface scandal proves his political undoing (or at least a contributing factor), it underscores the need for public figures to throughly review their pasts and ensure their previous actions reconcile with their current messages.