McWhorter: What I See in the Latest Blackface ‘Scandal’

Misguided wokeness:

At the University of Michigan recently, the music professor Bright Sheng — who’s had a superlative career as a composer, conductor and musician — wanted to share with his students how Giuseppe Verdi transformedShakespeare’s “Othello” into the acclaimed opera “Otello.” That transformation is a rich and instructive topic in music composition.
In September, Sheng showed his undergraduate composition seminar the 1965 film based on the Royal National Theatre’s stage production of “Othello,” with Laurence Olivier playing the title role in blackface makeup, in line with the custom of the era.
Some students took offense: One told The Michigan Daily that she was “shocked” and that Sheng failed to first contextualize what the class saw. Sheng apologized. Days later, the dean of Music, Theatre & Dance wrote that “Professor Sheng’s actions do not align with our school’s commitment to anti-racist action, diversity, equity and inclusion.” Sheng apologized again, and in an apparent effort to mitigate, offered examples of his professional support over the years for people of color. That drew criticism from grad students, undergrads and faculty, who, according to The Daily, called it “inflammatory” in an open letter calling for Sheng’s removal as course instructor.
In a Medium post, a writer identifying as a member of the class took Sheng’s department chair to task for, reportedly, recommending that the issue “may be something you ought to first discuss with Professor Sheng.” (The audacity.) The same post implied that Sheng’s alleged transgressions were as grave as, for instance, incidents of sexual harassment and abuse. If you want to read more, Cathy Young has provided invaluable coverage of what she correctly describes as yet another “moral panic.”
Sheng has left the class.
A common response to occurrences like this is to condemn the students involved as being overly delicate — snowflakes, in today’s parlance. However, merely leveling that charge doesn’t facilitate a constructive discussion about what fuels these sadly routine events. The underlying issue isn’t the students’ fragility, it’s that their approach illustrates the difference between radicalism and progressivism. It’s an example of a strain of thought permeating campuses (our whole society, really), one that blithely elides that difference in favor of preaching only of “social justice.”
Start here: What happened to Sheng would have been much less likely a generation ago. In the late 1990s, I showed a class of white, Black and Asian American students a scene from a film with white performers in blackface. Beforehand, I mentioned that this was a very old movie and that we were going to see a practice that nobody would venture today, but that the film was instructive for other reasons. None of the students batted an eye, at least that I could see. If anything, some of the Black students (and maybe some of the non-Black students) snickered at the performers for how ridiculous they looked.
So, here’s our query: Is the response of Sheng’s students an advance on those of my students a generation ago? Were me and my students missing something upon which our modern era is more enlightened?
Before we tackle that, there are two important points to address. First, as Young notes, Olivier’s performance does involve a degree of cartoonish swagger beyond what some blackface performances of the era entailed. But it’s reasonable to assume that Sheng’s students would have had a similar response to more restrained blackface portrayals of Othello, such as Orson Welles’s.
Second, Sheng should indeed have made clear that he was about to show his students something that would require them to put on their “history glasses,” as I sometimes put it. But the question involves degree: Should he now be barred from the class amid rhetoric that makes him sound like a pitiless bigot, unfit and out of step with an enlightened society? I’d say no.
Now: Let’s break down what the crux of objections to showing a blackface performance ever at all are.
The typical idea is that blackface is a reminder of the reign of minstrel shows, in which white performers wore blackface makeup and engaged in clownish distortion of Black speech and dance styles. Minstrel shows were core American entertainment for most of the 19th century, and well into the 20th. It was a filmic depiction of a minstrel show, in fact, that I showed my class: Al Jolson in 1930’s “Mammy.”
Minstrel shows were disgusting, all the more so in how utterly central they were in American entertainment for so very long. But is there no statute of limitations on how long a people will feel actual injury about such a thing? In 2021, there is barely a person alive who attended a minstrel show performed as mainstream, professional entertainment. Even those who may have caught ragtag amateur groups keeping the tradition alive are likely now quite elderly.
The idea seems to be that we (relatively) younger Black people and our non-Black fellow travelers are nevertheless so viscerally stung by seeing any manifestation of this bygone tradition that to show dated footage of a white British actor in blackface, as part of an academic colloquy, qualifies as a grievous insult. But I like to think of Black Americans as a people of pride and forward thinking. I miss those qualities in this submission to an insult leveled by perpetrators now very, very dead. And since no one can seriously argue that Sheng’s intent was to revive or exalt the practice of blackface — and not to teach something about the operatic adaptation of a seminal literary work — to treat him as an accessory to those dead perpetrators seems more a kind of performance in itself than a spontaneously felt insult.
Another idea would be that to imitate a Black person by trying to darken the appearance of one’s skin is, inherently, to ridicule that person. But is it impossible in the logical sense that someone might costume oneself as a Black person one admires and put on makeup to darken one’s face simply as part of seeking to look like that person? Many will heatedly object: “Impossible!” But we must attend to why. If the answer is minstrel shows, then see above.
These days, we’re expected to recoil, under any circumstances, at the idea of a white person attempting to make their skin look like the color of a nonwhite person’s, as if this were the automatic equivalent to using a racist slur, or worse. But context matters. A lot.
Is blackface being shown as part of a collegiate-level discussion, as in the Michigan case? College students shouldn’t need protection from an old film used to help them think about and debate the conversion of a classic over time. Sheng was using the film to stir and inform artistic consciousness. To read that situation otherwise is deeply anti-intellectual.
Is blackface being deployed comedically, not to make fun of Black people, but to lampoon the absurdity of racism? For example, in one episode of the sitcom “30 Rock,” Jane Krakowski’s character is made up in blackface and wears men’s clothing; Tracy Morgan’s character is made up in whiteface, a blond wig and wears women’s clothing in a “social experiment” to see who has it harder in America — white women or Black men. In another episode, Krakowski is made up in blackface and dresses as the Pittsburgh Steelers great Lynn Swann, who’s not derided in any way, the bit being a clever play on the movie title “Black Swan.”
Last year, not long after George Floyd was murdered, three “30 Rock” episodes that involved blackface, including those two, were taken out of syndication. The show’s producers, including its star, Tina Fey, may have concluded they had no choice. But we might ask why the sheer matter of the makeup was an insult to Black people. It’s not self-evident that pulling those episodes was morally necessary in 2020 because of careers like Jolson’s. The shows’ flashes of wit didn’t set Black people back in any way. It’s hard to see how a lighthearted plotline about racism and sexism, even with blackface, harms Black people — or how taking it off the air helps us. My horse sense tells me that the vast majority of us get that a joke can be a joke.
These are my own observations. They are up for debate. But those condemning Sheng seem to consider their ideas not just opinions, but truths — the predicate for an inquisition. Yet, the view that blackface makeup is so uniquely revolting that a professor should be hounded from his class for showing, in a scholarly setting, decades-old scenes of an actor wearing it is a point that many find extreme. It is a position that requires some serious lifting and a vast transformation in common modes of thought, even among people with good-faith concerns about race relations, and would look odd to time travelers from just a few decades ago. A position like that is not simply “antiracist,” but radical.
This radical proposition, like so many on race of late, is being put forth as if it were scripture that no moral actor could question. It misses the point, then, to dismiss the students as fragile. Their claim entails that people were injured by such usages of blackface before, therefore must still be now, and that we should redefine the bounds of permissibility to bar such images from general experience. They think their recoil from the very sight of decades-old racist imagery is uniquely enlightened, a resistance to abuse endemic to our society’s past, present and future. To them, their response isn’t only appropriate, it’s mandatory.
But that’s a proposition they must assert in the public square and assume as subject to discussion and dissent.
And let’s face it, in that discussion, this radical proposition would likely be voted down. Its adherents would deem this as racism winning out. But many others would see it as a victory for common sense, seeing the current fashion as a performance, a kind of, yes, virtue signaling.
Or just maybe, the people who witch-hunted Sheng could defend their position better than I am imagining. I’d be happy to observe the attempt. But from where I sit, we’re seeing a radical agenda not proposed, but imposed. Upon what authority are they allowed such primacy of influence in how we speak, think and teach in our times?

The Woke Will Always Break Your Heart [on Trudeau and the left]

Good column. What struck me with the various commentaries on Trudeau’s blackface, was just how few of them, on the right or particularly the left, completely ignored any discussion or analysis of the Liberal record on “diversity and inclusion.” (See, for example, my Taking stock of Ottawa’s diversity promises):

The 2019 election is a test for Canadian progressives: style or substance. The Liberal government of Justin Trudeau is the most successful progressive government in the world. It instituted a carbon tax and legalized marijuana. Last year, for the first time, Canada settled more refugees than any other country. Because of higher government benefits, child poverty is at its lowest level in history. Economic growth this year reached 3 percent. That is what Trudeau has done. He also appeared in brownface at an Aladdin-themed costume party in 2001 at the age of 29.

Canadian progressives, like progressives all over the world, must decide whether they care more about the pursuit of social and cultural change, through the eradication of racist and sexist imagery, or the pursuit of transformative policies. In 2015, Trudeau promised both. He was the shining ideal of maximum wokeness, imposing a gender-equal cabinet and offering as the explanation, “Because it’s 2015.” Well, it’s 2019 now.

How racist Trudeau’s appearance in brownface was, and therefore how forgivable, is subject to debate. People of color in Canada—by no means a contiguous body or voting bloc—have differences of opinion about the gravity of Trudeau’s browning up. Sunny Khurana, a Sikh man who appears in one of Trudeau’s photos from the “Arabian Nights” theme party at West Point Grey Academy, did not find his appearance there racist in the slightest. “He wasn’t trying to demean anybody who was a person of color, and from what I can recall from that function, it never came across as that, not at all,” he said recently. “I mean, I didn’t even think twice of it. It was a good party. We had fun.”

Others read the costume as symptomatic of Canada’s racist history generally, and in particular its history with minstrel shows, which is more extensive than you might think. (The composer of Canada’s national anthem performed in blackface.) Others, such as the society gossip columnist Shinan Govani, have acknowledged personal conflicts: “It is the season of moral gymnastics, here in Canada,” he wrote in the Daily Beast.

Needless to say, dispassionate debate about the significance of Trudeau’s costume—parsing his intentions and the context—is not possible, given that we’re in the middle of an election. The picture went viral; that’s what counts. Liberal Party candidates have been struggling. “It was wrong then, and it’s wrong now,” Harjit Sajjan, the defense minister, told the CBC. “But I’m also here to talk about the person I know, in terms of how much he is standing up for people.”

Whatever Canadians may think about the photograph itself, it closes off a major line of attack for Trudeau. Live by the sword of political correctness, die by the sword of political correctness. You can’t argue that your opponents are a bunch of embarrassing antiquities living in the political past—by, say, replaying the Conservative leader’s 2005 speech opposing gay marriage, which the Liberals were doing right up until this story broke—when the internet is rife with your face in brown makeup.

The Trudeau scandal points to a larger problem: The woke will always break your heart. It’s not just that nobody’s perfect, and it’s not just that times change, and it’s not even that the instinct to punish that defines so much of the left is inherently self-defeating. If people want to sell you morality, of any kind, they always have something to hide.

The main criticism from Trudeau’s opponents on the right has usually been that he’s a spoiled brat—a son of privilege—not up to running the country. A faker. The brownface debacle has now become, on the left, a symbol of his lack of real commitment to progressive values. But the cross-party consensus that Trudeau is slight and phony doesn’t survive even a cursory examination of his record. An independent assessment by two dozen Canadian academics found that Trudeau has kept 92 percent of his campaign promises, fully or partially, the most by any Canadian government in 35 years. He is measurably, demonstrably the most sincere and effective prime minister in living memory. He is the rare case of a man whose virtue-signaling has distracted from his real virtues.

Only the left struggles with these standards of style. Right-wing political opponents in Canada and elsewhere have a completely different understanding of acceptable behavior. In the United States, President Donald Trump’s supporters take his brand of nastiness, his aggressive rejection of even the most basic social norms, as a sign of authenticity. Meanwhile, Senator Elizabeth Warren is still apologizing for her Cherokee-ancestry claim.

This imbalance matters, because the left’s aesthetic vulnerability comes at a moment of real threat for progressives. Multiculturalism as a project is dying globally, and not because of a sudden outbreak of brownface performances. The “Howdy Modi” event in Houston revealed how the world is turning: populism, xenophobia, the bragging stupidity of ethnic pride. During the last election, Trudeau’s main opponent, the Conservatives, promised “barbaric cultural practices” hotlines and “Canadian values tests” alongside a two-tiered citizenship system under which dual citizens and immigrants could have their citizenship revoked while natural-born Canadians could not. If voters who believe in multiculturalism cannot forgive face paint, the multicultural project as policy may not survive.

In this context, it’s unclear whether the extreme blandness of Trudeau’s main opponent, Andrew Scheer, helps or hurts the prime minister’s chances for reelection. Scheer does not bother with costumes. He’s not photogenic enough. He, too, is embroiled in a scandal, however—about whether he was properly accredited to claim he worked as an insurance broker for a few months. This may be not just the most boring scandal in this election, and or in Canadian history, but the most boring scandal imaginable. I cannot imagine a duller one. Nobody thinks about Scheer much. But perhaps Canadians want a prime minister they don’t have to think about much.

“The fact of the matter is that I’ve always—and you’ll know this—been more enthusiastic about costumes than is sometimes appropriate,” Trudeau acknowledged in the first of a seemingly endless series of apologies. Progressives loved Trudeau’s best costume: Captain Woke. We’ll find out in October whether they were with him for his policies or his poses. They can’t have both. But they can have neither.


Trudeau ‘blackface’ discussion surged online and then waned after 3 days, report finds

Like so many issues, real or not:

The day Time magazine published its report on a photo of Justin Trudeau wearing blackface, discussion exploded online. But less than a week later, online posts about the scandal had all but disappeared, according to new research from McGill University.

In fact, the online discourse around Trudeau’s history of wearing blackface dropped off dramatically within three days, according to an analysis of social media posts published today by the Digital Democracy Project, an effort led by the Public Policy Forum and the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University.

“The story breaks and within a couple hours is trending on Twitter, there’s a massive amount of coverage,” said lead data analyst Aengus Bridgman. “By the next day, it’s about half. By the third day, it’s about a quarter and it goes down from there to very little discussion by the end of the week.”

The findings are based on a dataset of 3 million tweets from the general public from Sept.17 to Sept. 28. A separate dataset of Facebook posts that mention Trudeau and blackface or link to a story covering the issue showed a similar sharp decline in just a few days.

Journalists and politicians on Twitter also followed a similar pattern, with a high amount of tweets about blackface in the first few days that dropped off significantly toward the end of the week.

“We think that the brownface/blackface story offers a pretty unique research moment in an election where an unexpected discourse emerges that nobody could have planned for,” said Taylor Owen, the director of the Digital Democracy Project.

The researchers also took a look at accounts that are likely partisan based on the politicians they follow from each party. This showed that, while partisans of all stripes tweeted about the story, it was largely pushed by Conservative supporters.

An analysis of the hashtags used by accounts from these groups, however, show that most likely they were circulating among like-minded people: most of the blackface-related tweets coming from Conservative partisan accounts, for example, were only seen by other Conservative partisans, the report found.

“Among partisan Twitter users, Conservatives are driving the conversation about the controversy,” the report found. “The blackface-related hashtags are disproportionately populated by right-leaning partisans who are largely speaking among themselves.”

Source: Trudeau ‘blackface’ discussion surged online and then waned after 3 days, report finds

Quebec’s Bill 21 should also stir anti-racist outrage among party leaders

Good column by Jack Jedwab:

Somewhat unexpectedly, the issues of discrimination and racism have moved to the forefront in the federal election. At the start of the campaign, answering a journalist’s question about Quebec’s secularism Bill 21, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau left open the possibility of some eventual legal intervention on the legislation. Predictably, there was an almost immediate response from Quebec Premier François Legault, asking all federal leaders to make a pledge to stay out of the matter. With the exception of Trudeau, the other federal party leaders quickly complied. Bill 21 prohibits the wearing of religious symbols by Quebec public school teachers, judges, police officers, prison guards, Crown prosecutors and other public servants in positions of authority, as a way of enshrining the concept of state secularism.

And then, just as the campaign’s attention on Bill 21 waned, some very distasteful photos of a younger Trudeau in brownface and in blackface hit the national and international media. Trudeau apologized many times for his past behaviour and correctly acknowledged that it was highly offensive.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer insisted that the blackface pointed to Trudeau’s lack of judgment and as such raised questions about his ability to govern. During a September 20 campaign stop in PEI, Scheer said all levels of government need to address the types of issues raised by such conduct. He said that “Conservatives will always support measures that tackle discrimination…We’ll always promote policies that promote inclusiveness and equality throughout our society.” Ironically, that’s precisely what needs to be said in addressing Bill 21.

For his part, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh made an impassioned plea to all Canadians who were offended by the images of Trudeau in blackface. He chose to speak to those people who have felt the pain of racism and urged them not to give up on themselves, adding that they have value and worth and that they are loved. But that message does not appear to apply to those persons affected by Bill 21. Singh seems unwilling to defend those Quebecers who wear a turban, hijab or kippah and want to teach at a public school in their home province. Paradoxically, while Singh can become prime minister of Canada, he would be unable to teach at a public school in Quebec under Bill 21. By insisting on the need to respect provincial jurisdiction, Singh implies that members of religious minorities need to give up their hope of seeking a career in public service.

Both Scheer’s and Singh’s criticisms of Trudeau and the related concerns about the spread of racism would be more credible if they denounced the discriminatory aspects of Bill 21 rather than bowing to the Quebec Premier’s demands and looking the other way on what Legault insists is a strictly provincial matter.

Perhaps, like many observers, the federal party leaders don’t see any connection between blackface and a state prohibition against educators wearing hijabs, turbans and kippahs in public institutions. Yet the case can surely be made that both arise from subconscious or overt feelings and/or expressions of prejudice that are, regrettably, deemed acceptable by far too many people. The difference is that Trudeau’s use of blackface occurred two decades ago, while the legislation banning religious symbols is the object of current debate.

In the aftermath of the Trudeau blackface incidents, there have been calls for a national conversation about racism. But the tone of this election campaign does not allow for a thoughtful discussion about the ongoing challenge of eliminating racism and discrimination. Ideally, all federal party leaders should work together to combat racism and discrimination, whether it appears in Quebec or anywhere else in the country.

Source: Quebec’s Bill 21 should also stir anti-racist outrage among party leaders

The outliers of Canadian media

Similar to other commentary but would benefit from an overall discussion of the media financial situation and shrinking employment, enrolment in j-schools (appears to be about 20 percent visible minorities), and the replication of much mainstream focussing on the words, not the record.

And if one cites the percentage of the population that is visible minority, use the 2016 number, not the 2011 one:

Last week, after the trifecta of images were released of Trudeau in blackface and brownface, a group of journalists of colour—Tanya Talaga, Manisha Krishnan and Anita Li—discussed the lack of diversity in Canadian newsrooms on CBC’s The Current.

Due to the lack of visible-minority voices reporting on Trudeau’s blackface, they all agreed, the story, which was really about systemic racism in Canada, was reduced to plain outrage. Rather than giving readers the context they needed to understand the prejudices that people of colour have faced historically and continue to face now, what the public got instead, was a political spin on Trudeau’s actions.

In other words, How would Trudeau’s blackface affect him in the upcoming election? 

For Krishnan, a senior writer for Vice, the questions directed to Trudeau at the media scrum post-blackface were the most frustrating. “There was really no one asking him, ‘Okay, you didn’t think it was racist, what were you thinking? Walk us through your thought process. Why would you think this was an appropriate thing to do?’” she said.

It’s largely about how the Canadian media covers race, Li added, explaining that one of the reasons she relocated stateside was because U.S. media has more of a willingness to publish stories that unpack the nuances of race. It is part lived experience, and part education, she explained.

The stats on newsroom diversity are grossly out-dated, and uncomfortable to examine: In 2006, only 3.4 per cent of people in newsrooms were people of colour. The fact that there’s been no concerted effort to publish current statistics on diversity trends in media signals an even greater concern—while newsroom diversity is abysmal, we’re idle, and simply too embarrassed to address it.

So what does it take for a person of colour, from an under-privileged home, to make it into a national newsroom? A lot. It’s a combination of both what you did and where you were—personal motivation and external circumstances. The handful—if that—of coloured faces in each newsroom you see are outliers. Don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise.

I grew up in Thorncliffe Park, an area in Toronto’s East York, wedged between the Danforth and the more wealthy Leaside neighbourhood. Thorncliffe Park is a cul-de-sac of apartment buildings where, in the early 90s, an influx of Filipino immigrants settled. My cousins lived in the buildings across from me. Our church—St. Edith Stein—was majority Filipino. My dad and my uncles sat inside East York Town Centre on Saturday mornings, sipping coffee and telling stories in Tagalog.

The cul-de-sac was split in half: if you lived on one side, you attended school on the Danforth, if you lived on the other, you went to school in Leaside. Our building fed into Leaside. At St. Anselm, the student population was about 40 per cent Filipino, 60 per cent white.

There, I was schooled on the opportunities afforded to white people. My white classmates, most of whom had fathers who were doctors, lawyers, business owners and mothers who stayed at home, operated with a sense of unconscious certainty. Their upbringings provided them a firm sense of place in Canadian society. This even trickled into the way teachers and parents addressed the kids—you were either a “Leasider,” or not.

I’m no Malcolm Gladwell, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to assume that—for a child who is 10 years old—having an awareness of economic opportunity by way of your parents correlates with job success later in life. And that’s the inherent advantage white people have in journalism. It’s a career that’s foreseeable in their worldview. Meanwhile, journalism for first-generation immigrant children is like one of those secrets you want to keep from your parents; it’s not part of the conversation at home, nor do you want to bring it up.

It was during my time at St. Anselm that I became acquainted with the term “white-washed”—people of colour who speak, dress and act like they’re white. I first recall my own intuitive white-washing when I spent the time in the homes of friends in Leaside. Inside their carefully decorated houses, I did everything not to highlight how I was different, and instead sought to prove that I was just like them.

The white-washing I subjected myself to as a child, is akin to the way in which I operated at the start of my career in media—showcasing my degrees rather than my personal perspective, listing off my bylines rather than the subject matter I’m passionate about (one being immigrant issues), and dumbing down the core reason why we need more people like me in journalism: If I don’t give the 850,000 Filipinos across Canada—the third-largest Asian-Canadian group in the country—a voice, who will?

In June, CBC and Radio-Canada’s broadcasting division announced a new commitment to diversity across their broadcasting arm. By 2025, they wrote in a press release, the company aims to have at least one key creative—producer, director, showrunner and lead performer—from a diverse background in all its programs. I’d argue that more must be done to radicalize diversity targets across all media.

This starts with having internship programs where at least 50 per cent of interns are people of colour. When it comes to securing a full-time gig in journalism, landing an entry-level role like an internship, is the first of many barriers to entry. By diversifying these jobs, we can ensure an ongoing funnel of young, visible-minority journalists making their way into national newsrooms.

Another idea is to have at least one key decision-making position at large news organizations be filled by a person of colour—and ideally, they’d have hiring authority. It’s one way to tackle what we know as the ‘similarity bias,’ which in the case of journalism and media, is the revolving door of white reporters hired by a majority-white management.

At Maclean’s, while our writers come from a number of backgrounds, the number of ethnic minorities on staff falls below 19.1 per cent,[note: 2016 census number is 22.3 percent] the percentage of people in Canada who identify as a member of a visible minority group, according to Statistics Canada. So instead of hiding from stats, shouldn’t we give these numbers a hard look and ask ourselves: Is Canada truly represented here?

Source: The outliers of Canadian media

Andrew Cohen: Many bigoted leaders have championed minorities once in office

Perspective and looking at the record:

A year ago, the United States Senate was divided over the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, tainted by allegations of sexual misconduct when Kavanaugh was in high school and college. The Republicans limited – and rushed – the FBI investigation into Kavanaugh. It never even interviewed some of his critical old classmates. But the Republicans called the whole affair a smear campaign and confirmed him.

Now there are more allegations. Leading Democrats say he should be removed from the court. If they regain control of both houses of Congress in next year’s election, they could try.

Before that, they should consider the dangers of holding a public figure accountable today for the thoughts or actions of a youthful yesterday. Senate Democrats in Indiana, Missouri, Florida and North Dakota who opposed Kavanaugh lost their seats last year. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who supported Kavanaugh, won.

The suspicion: Democrats in red states (which Donald Trump won in 2016) were punished for their votes on Kavanaugh, suggesting there’s a penalty for this kind of politics. Rather than celebrating their courage, skeptics suggest that voters either didn’t think that Kavanaugh was guilty – or that if he was, it was long ago and didn’t emerge in his career as a jurist.

This is the question raised by Justin Trudeau and blackface, which has generated much sanctimonious comment in the United States. Trudeau has his defenders, though. Conservative writer and columnist Andrew Sullivan, for example, says pillorying someone for their former self is absurd.

In Trudeau’s case, wearing blackface was cavalier, crude and ignorant. But he isn’t a racist. And even if he were in his deepest thoughts two decades ago, would it matter?

Judging public figures by their private behaviour is complicated. Can we really hold people to account for what they said or did before they were fully formed? And can we judge them by their views (or acts) in the face of their public record? In Trudeau’s case, wearing blackface was cavalier, crude and ignorant. But he isn’t a racist. And even if he were in his deepest thoughts two decades ago, would it matter?

In its composition and its policies, Trudeau’s government is diverse and progressive. His cabinet comes from both sexes, many faiths and colours. His immigration and refugee policies are relatively generous. For those who dislike Trudeau, his fondness for shoe polish will only reinforce their antipathy. But there is nothing racist about his government. Nothing. And that’s why the reaction of the élites may be harsher than that of the people.

All prominent people have misjudgments in their past. A young Pierre Trudeau flirted intellectually with fascism and the anti-Semitism that shaped the conversation in Quebec in the 1940s. Did it matter? Trudeau as an adult was defined by his commitment to personal freedom. Patriating the British North America Act and entrenching the Charter of Rights was the single greatest act of statesmanship in our history.

Lyndon Johnson was a racist. He blithely used “n—–” in private conversations, even as president. It was earthy and offensive to blacks in his circle. The same Johnson drove the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. No president since Abraham Lincoln was as important on race.

Harry Truman also used “n—–” privately but it didn’t stop him from integrating the military. Richard Nixon was an anti-Semite who saved the State of Israel when he sent it planeloads of arms during the Yom Kippur War.

For each, did racism, anti-Semitism or bigotry, matter? Not if you believe that their public deeds negated their private thoughts.

Kavanaugh is more complicated. He should remain accountable for what many conclude was sexual assault. One reason is that as a high court judge, he is one of America’s nine moral arbiters, appointed for life; many judges beyond suspicion could fill the job. Another is that he apologized for nothing and was intemperate in his hearing, unbecoming of a judge.

But had Kavanaugh simply disliked (not accosted) women, as those presidents disliked blacks or Jews, why should we care what’s in the human heart – and in the past – if that is where it stays?

Source: Cohen: Many bigoted leaders have championed minorities once in office

Trudeau’s blackface apology rings hollow and highlights anti-Arab stereotypes

An example of commentary without examining the actual policies implemented (eg. appointments, M-103 and follow-up).

His case would be stronger if there was an examination of the Liberal government record, rather than what I consider to be lazy commentary without that balance:

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has offended, humiliated and hurt several communities in Canada. The images of Trudeau in blackface invoke vile, racist and offensive stereotypes that have been used to deny the common humanity of Black communities across time.

Trudeau wore blackface on several occasions, including at an “Arabian Nights”-themed party where he also wore a stereotypical outfit. He has apologized for the blackface.

Canadians are now reflecting on the impact and significance of the prime minister’s apologies.

Leadership matters

In her recent book, Leading With Dignity author Donna Hicks, based at Harvard’s Weatherhead Center, says leaders play a significant role in creating institutional cultures, including governments. She argues that leaders must genuinely accept other identities if they want to promote the equal dignity and worth of all people.

Trudeau’s conduct ridicules racialized communities. It signals to them that they are second-class citizens. His behaviour must be understood in political and social context.

Trudeau uses anti-Arab clichés in politics

The prime minister invokes anti-Arab tropes when he criticizes Palestinian advocates and their allies who support Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israeli occupation. For example, at a town hall in St. Catharines, Ont., in January 2019, Trudeau asserted that those who support BDS violate “Canadian values.”

People can disagree on the purpose or effectiveness of BDS.

But Trudeau’s decision to declare his opponents as un-Canadian is troubling. It invokes anti-Arab stereotypes and can be linked to a larger pattern of discrimination faced by Arabs and Muslims in Canada, groups that are often improperly conflated.

In a recent paper from the Journal of Law and Social Policy, “All Arabs Are Liars,” I examined a sample of human rights cases for common anti-Arab and anti-Muslim stereotypes. My analysis confirmed that Arabs and Muslim are stereotyped as un-Canadian or disloyal to Canada.

Stereotypes impact people’s lives

Stereotypes or negative tropes are not simply insulting. They help maintain a racialized status quo. They cause us to misjudge other people’s motives, abilities and actions.

For example, after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, stereotypes influenced the decisions of Canadian officials who falsely concluded that Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen, engineer and father of two, belonged to a foreign terrorist group. The officials’ decisions reflected the belief that Arabs and Muslims are not true Canadians. Such thinking contributed to Arar’s overseas torture. It is also evident in the torture of other Canadian Arab,Muslim men in several overseas instances as determined by a federal commission’s inquiry.

Various studies have confirmed that Arabs and Muslims increasingly face discrimination and stereotyping in policing and national security surveillance. Arabs and Muslims also face discrimination at border sites, public spaces, workplaces, service counters and airports

Arab Canadians face racism

In a recent survey of Arab communities in Ontario undertaken on behalf of the Arab Canadian Lawyers Association with the support of the Law Foundation of Ontario, sociologist Suzanne McMurphy and I found that 27 per cent of people surveyed tried to hide their Arab identities.

When asked why one person explained it was because of the “prejudice and stigma associated with being Arab.” Another said: “Because it is clear to me that racism exists against Arabs and open membership can negatively affect me in the hunt for jobs.”

Unlike U.S. President Donald Trump, the Liberal government has not targeted Arab and Muslim communities. But, it has allowed anti-Arab and anti-Muslim practices to continue. It has failed to explicitly examine how its own policies diminish groups and perpetuate racial inequalities.

A show of diversity is not equity

Some point to the diversity of Trudeau’s team as a sign of his commitment to equality. But diversity and equality are not the same.

Feminists use the phrase “add women and stir” to describe the practice of including women without changing subordinating structures. The same tokenism can be taken towards racial equality.

Trudeau’s team is diverse. But the question is not simply “who does he include?” The problem is also: “On what terms does he include them?” A former Liberal adviser suggests the Trudeau team does not actually value diversity. It simply wants votes from diverse groups without fully including them in its power structures.

Meanwhile, the prime minister acknowledges that racialized people in Canada face discrimination. His apology used terms like “micro-aggressions,” “unconscious bias” and “systemic discrimination”.“

But it’s not clear that he’s internalized those concepts.

Until the prime minister demonstrates a real grasp of the dynamics of discrimination, his apologies will ring hollow.

Source: Trudeau’s blackface apology rings hollow and highlights anti-Arab stereotypes

I’m Calgary’s Muslim mayor. We can learn from Trudeau’s ‘brownface’ moment.

One of the best articles:

When I saw the picture, it was like a sucker punch. But there it was, smack in the middle of the Canadian election: my prime minister, dressed up in some sort of Orientalist “Arabian Nights” get-up, his face and hands darkened, that smile the same today as in the 18-year-old photo.

Let’s dispense with the obvious: Yes, it was a stupid thing to do, as much in 2001 as now. No, he’s not a racist. Yes, he’s done incredible things for pluralism at home and abroad. He’s apologized honestly and acknowledged how his own privilege blinded him to the impact of his actions on others. No, we don’t need to demand more penance from him. Yes, he should have come to this self-awareness much earlier, particularly as a then-29-year-old teacher who also happened to be the son of a former prime minister. No, he shouldn’t resign over this; he deserves to be judged on the totality of his record and whether Canadians believe in his ability to do good in the future.

But this tawdry incident highlights a much more important conversation all Canadians — and citizens of all liberal democracies — need to have.

First, some context.

Justin Trudeau and I are the same age. He was born when his father, Pierre Trudeau, was prime minister, growing up at 24 Sussex Drive, Canada’s version of the White House. I was born six weeks later; my father and pregnant mother having recently immigrated to Canada not long after Trudeau père announced, in a statement to our House of Commons, that multiculturalism would be Canada’s official policy.

Justin’s and my upbringing were quite different, but we both grew up in a Canada that defined itself by opportunity: a place where a poor, first-generation kid could get a great public education, work hard and do well in his career, supported by a community with a stake in his success. Like the son of a well-to-do prime minister, he can even be elected to public office.

When I was elected as Calgary’s mayor in 2010, I suddenly became well known beyond the boundaries of my beloved hometown. It surprised me. I thought people might want to talk about my come-from-behind win, or how a wonky professor with little name recognition beat better-known opponents. But all anyone wanted to talk about was my faith: How did a conservative municipality known for cowboys, rodeos and hosting the 1988 Winter Olympics end up with the first Muslim mayor of a major Western city?

I was surprised. My faith was not an election issue. It rarely came up, and when it did, citizens protested. He grew up here, he’s one of us, they said on call-in shows. We don’t care that he fasts during Ramadan, we care what he thinks about public transportation.

I could have waved those questions away, but I felt there was an important story to tell. A story of Canada as a multicultural utopia, as a place that has long understood that everyone who shares this land deserves dignity and the chance to be the best they can be. I still believe that.

Even in Canada, people of colour (or color, if you prefer) don’t quite live in the same world as others. We sometimes have to work a little harder, we have to prove ourselves a little bit more, we have to put up with occasional irritations. But it’s part of the deal to live and have great lives here. And we’ve got jokes to help us sort awkward moments: Go back to my camel, you say? I don’t have one. It’s 2019! I use a camel-sharing app!

I guarantee you there were people at parties in Calgary and in your town this past Halloween who darkened their faces for costume. Heck, I’ve even seen pictures of people dressed as me (despite my annual public service announcement that “Sexy Mayor” is not an appropriate look). The folks dressed like me are generally fans. They’re certainly not racists. And “brownface” (Is that even a thing?) doesn’t have the moral weight and historical baggage of blackface. Does it?

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada with his face and hands painted in what he described as “brownface,” poses with others at an “Arabian Nights” party when he was a 29-year-old teacher at the West Point Grey Academy in Vancouver, in this photo published in the academy’s 2000-2001 yearbook. This image, published in The View yearbook, was obtained by Time. (The View Yearbook/Via Reuters)

Someone who is seen as an ally can still do senseless things, however. Even in my amazing country, we don’t always know who really gets it, and who, despite their best intentions, still isn’t quite there. And in the past half-decade, something has shifted. Here in Canada, the home of the Global Centre for Pluralism, a nation where our innovation and defense ministers both wear turbans, where another minister is a refugee from Afghanistan, and where, during the Syrian refugee crisis, political parties supported taking in more people, something isn’t quite right.

It’s become easier to be careless with our language and comments, both online and in line at the coffee shop. In the run-up to the 2015 federal election, the incumbent government flirted with haters by pledging to ban face veils at citizenship ceremonies and promising to institute a Barbaric Cultural Practices snitch hotline. Canadians, in their way, responded by reporting, My neighbor wears socks with sandals! I saw someone eat Thai food with chopsticks instead of the correct spoon and fork! That government was defeated.

Yet in this year’s election, we have a (hopefully marginal) political party vowing, “Say NO to Mass Immigration” and accusing politicians of promoting sharia law. (Neither of these things exist in Canada.)

Far more egregiously, it’s no longer just slogans or casual individual acts of racism. It’s moved into actual policy. In Quebec, a new law prohibits people who wear conspicuous religious attire from holding certain public-sector jobs, including teachers and police officers.

Jagmeet Singh, a lawyer, is running for prime minister as leader of a national party, but because he wears a turban, could not serve as a judge in Quebec. I, as a Muslim man, could hold any job I want, but under this law, a Muslim woman who covers with a headscarf cannot. Muslim men who wear long beards could claim it’s just a nod to hipster-dom, and be free and clear, but Orthodox Jewish men with the same beard or a yarmulke cannot. Montreal’s mayor can hold any role, but the leader of her opposition, who wears a kippah, cannot. They’ve stood together against the law.

It’s all flagrantly unconstitutional, but the province of Quebec used the “notwithstanding clause,” a constitutional override provision (ironically, like multiculturalism, a gift from the tenure of the first Prime Minster Trudeau) to protect itself from legal challenge.

What’s funny about all of this is that various national leaders have mumbled platitudes about how much they dislike this law, but also haven’t committed to doing anything about it — including the candidate who wears a turban. Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer leans on the notion of “provincial jurisdiction” in a way that echoes of the language of “states’ rights” in the United States.

Even though the federal government could restrict Quebec’s financing or use its legal power to enjoin the provincial legislation, our federal leaders so far haven’t demonstrated the courage to do so. They’re hardly even talking about it. The law is popular in Quebec, and among others in the country, too. In an election year, they must be thinking, why risk losing those votes?

I‘m grateful every day that I’m Canadian — that my parents chose this country on the other side of the world. There’s no better place to have these conversations. But we have to have them.

We cannot stand on moral high ground calling out leaders for offensive things they did, years ago, if we’re not also willing to stand up against the racist and discriminatory behavior that’s right in front of our faces in 2019. We cannot choose our values a la carte when they benefit us — we need to be all in, all the time.

Canada, like any other country, isn’t black and white. It’s many-hued. Sometimes, it’s brown. We’re a welcoming, diverse country, but we recognize that we have work to do. Now, let’s use Justin Trudeau’s old blunders to think about the links between individual action and real justice.

Source: I’m Calgary’s Muslim mayor. We can learn from Trudeau’s ‘brownface’ moment.

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