Reflections on the Trudeau brown face/black face photos

Observing the media frenzy over the past few days over the Trudeau photos, a number of thoughts came to mind:

  • The focus on what was viewed as hypocrisy, understandably so, given Trudeau’s inclusion and diversity mantra and the Liberal party’s war room tactics in “outing” Conservative candidates for homophobic or racist remarks;
  • The overall shallowness of the reporting, focussed almost exclusively on the possible political impact, rather than more substantive issues involving racism;
  • The contrast between media and pundit outrage and more balanced reaction by many visible minority Canadians in talk shows and other reactions; and,
  • The lack of assessment of the Trudeau government’s record where, as I have analyzed before, is strong with respect to increased diversity (Taking stock of Ottawa’s diversity promises) and its renewal of the Multiculturalism Program including additional funds for data collection and anti-Black racism initiatives.

As noted by many, Trudeau’s apology was in many ways, his first real apology. One can only wonder whether he had adapted a similar approach to the various ethnical lapses (Aga Khan Island holiday, particularly SNC Lavalin) whether the government would be facing the same electoral challenge.

And most pundits, at least at the time of writing, have not done any meaningful comparison between the Trudeau apology for these photos and Scheer’s non-apology for his 2005 speech in Parliament against same sex marriage.

My quick take:

  • Trudeau responded quickly, with a second and more comprehensive response within 24 hours;
  • Scheer waited for the better part of a week before responding;
  • Trudeau recognized what the photos communicated, recognized their impact, expressed regret and indicated his personal views and behaviour have evolved, and made a strong statement against racism;
  • Scheer spoke in impersonal and legalistic terms that a Conservative government would not reopen same sex marriage but did not indicate his personal views and behaviour had changed;
  • Both were in their mid-to-late 20s and thus were adults.

Fundamentally, Trudeau’s insensitivity and obliviousness towards these images is balanced by not by his disavowal but more important by the actions the government he leads.

In contrast, Scheer continues to give the impression that personally, he stands by his 2005 speech but accepts the reality that same sex marriage is the law of the land. His absence in Pride events tends to confirm that.

Two media articles that drew my attention:

First, Samana Siddiqui’s Responding to Justin Trudeau’s Brownface: Memories of a Brown-Skinned Canadian:

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is just a few years older than I am, and he grew up in the same Montreal I did in the 1980s. Which is why I can understand the roots of his “brownface” stunt.

For the record, blackface and brownface are wrong. Dressing up and mimicking another race or culture via costume is nothing less than a modern-day minstrel show. It’s not about humor, but about power and arrogance, intentional or not. The mimicked group is rarely the one in control of the accepted narrative about themselves or others.

My elementary school in Montreal was very racially and ethnically diverse. Most of the kids were like me, second-generation Canadians, the children of immigrants to Canada from all over the world. While we had our fights and disagreements, most of the time, epithets and insults based on race, ethnicity, or religion were rarely, if ever, uttered.

That changed once I reached seventh grade in a new school, in another Montreal neighborhood. There, most of the kids were also second-generation Canadians, with one caveat – their roots hailed from a specific European country (I’ll decline to name it). I was now, literally, a brown face in a sea of white. That was the first time I was called a “Paki” in school.

My response to the insult (which had been imported from Britain to Canada to describe brown-skinned South Asian people) was fairly simple. I responded by insulting the name-caller’s ethnic group. It worked. He never insulted me again.

And life moved on.

Did it scar me? Not really. But it made me wonder what had made him call me a “Paki” when a. I was at my locker minding my own business at the time and b. I had never before insulted his ethnic group?

Part of it was because teenage boys can be exceedingly immature. The other part though reflected something deeper.

It was the understanding that such words and mockery were accepted culturally – even if they weren’t officially. Had I gone to my teacher or principal, I have no doubt that the offender would have been forced to apologize. But that didn’t take into account the fact that “Pakis” like me were unknown to my classmate. We were rarely encountered in person, or in the cultural landscape via movies or on television. And when we were, our brown faces, “smelly” food, “funny” clothes, and our parents’ “accents” were a source of derision.

It was a reminder that we can all talk about multiculturalism until we’re blue in the face in Canada – but in the end, the only acceptable setting is white.

The more interesting part of this whole fiasco though is that it was Trudeau’s father, the late Pierre Elliot Trudeau, who pushed for greater multiculturalism, opening up Canada legally and culturally to diversity when he was Prime Minister.

The elder Trudeau declared in 1971, the year of Justin Trudeau’s birth, that Canada would adopt a multicultural policy. Under his leadership, he emphasized that the Government of Canada would recognize and respect diversity in languages, customs, religions, and so on. In 1982, when he was still in power, multiculturalism was recognized by section 27 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

But laws are one thing. Cultural change takes longer. It takes generations.

I’m grateful that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has apologized. I have no doubt that this sudden revelation is also partly political calculation on the part of his opponents in a heated election campaign. In addition, we should keep in mind Trudeau’s overall record as a leader on issues of diversity when understanding this incident.

We can move on from here. But it has to be with the understanding that this is not about face paint or costumes. It’s about power. And if Canada, or any other country for that matter, wants to establish itself as a society committed to justice, equity, and strength through diversity, it cannot do that by creating an imbalance of cultural power – through insulting practices like brownface, blackface, or any other mockery.

Source: Responding to Justin Trudeau’s Brownface: Memories of a Brown-Skinned Canadian.

Secondly, Mark Kingwell’s Memo to Justin: Who you are today is who you were yesterday. His point on Aristotle “what you do is who you are” applies to Trudeau’s persistent instinct to defend, deny and obfuscate but not, I would argue to his political evolution.

After all, the views of most of us do evolve, both individually and collectively as we have seen with respect to gender equality, diversity, same sex marriage and the like:

So this is what we are forced to imagine. You have been invited to a party. There is a stated theme, or maybe it’s just a general fancy-dress affair. You go to the mirror, look at your handsome face and think: Hey, brown makeup! Or you look at your somewhat less handsome face and think: Hey, Nazi uniform!

Is there any species of dumb that’s dumber than donning a racist or fascist costume under cover of a party? Justin Trudeau, once our “It Boy” Prime Minister, is reeling from revelations that he dressed in brownface for an “Arabian Nights” party in 2001. Some may remember Prince Harry’s equally ill-judged decision to favour a brown shirt and swastika for a swanky birthday party back in 2005. What is it about parties? In both cases, you have to wonder: What were these guys thinking? I mean, really – brownface and brown shirt? I’m older than both of them, but even at their respective ages I think I would have known that these were bad, perhaps despicable, choices. Brownface? Brown shirt? Red flags, guys, red flags.

“I take responsibility for my decision to do that,” the PM said this week on the campaign trail. “I should have known better.” He added: “It was something that I didn’t think was racist at the time, but now I recognize it was something racist to do, and I am deeply sorry.” Things got even worse when it was revealed that, in high school, the youthful Justin performed Harry Belafonte’s hit song Day-O while wearing “makeup.”

Let’s be clear. We are not talking, here, about the nasty N-word dialogue in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926) or the casual disregard shown for black people in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn (1884). In both those cases, and many similar ones, there is an argument that the quoted characters are not identical with the author. Even T.S. Eliot’s avowed anti-Semitism or Enid Blyton’s racism might be contextualized, if never excused, based on the passage of time. But Mr. Trudeau: 2001. Prince Harry: 2005.

We are forced to recall, in the Prime Minister’s case, his justification, faced with accusations of unwanted groping, that “someone else might have experienced that differently and this is part of the reflections that we have to go through.” Memo to Justin: Some of us do our ethical reflections before the fact, not after.

The issues go beyond parties, japes and half-baked apologies. Recently, comedian Shane Gillis had his upcoming contract with Saturday Night Livecancelled because of racist and homophobic jokes he made, all captured on social media. This ignited an enraged counterattack from mostly white, mostly middle-aged comedians who saw it as an example of “cancel culture” – the new right-wing code for what used to be called political correctness.

Never mind that SNL, and especially executive producer Lorne Michaels, can boast no clean sheet when it comes to racist, homophobic and politically craven humour (the show’s kiss-ups to Donald Trump are especially egregious, though maybe balanced by some other gags). When Bill Burr, Jim Jefferies, Rob Schneider and others lamented this contractual decision as “cancelling,” they were just wrong. Wrong, period. There are consequences to actions, whether or not you consider yourself an “edgy” comedian or a handsome fellow with a fine social pedigree.

Some people, lamenting the new vigilance over what public figures say and do, wonder if there is no statute of limitations on bad behaviour. “Sheesh, guys, it was 2001! I was a kid!” In 2001, Justin Trudeau was 29 years old. Shane Gillis was 30 when he recorded the now-infamous podcast. “But I’m a comedian who takes risks.” Again, no. It’s not being overly sensitive or too social-justice warrior or “millennial” to respond: “Sorry, no free pass on that one, now or ever.”

Personally, I’m with Aristotle. The Greek philosopher taught us that your actions are your character. What you do is who you are. There is no escape hatch from that, just a deep and never-ending responsibility. Who you are today is who you were yesterday. We may forgive, but we never forget. Saying you “take responsibility” does not alter the record.

Have you done bad things in your life? Of course you have. So have I. Let’s hope we all exercised better judgment than even contemplating donning dark facial makeup or a swastika – or finessing a charge of sexual harassment. For the rest, the world must decide. Welcome to ethical life, friends.

Source: Memo to Justin: Who you are today is who you were yesterday

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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