When I was a kid growing up in Vancouver, I went to a Catholic school. I was the only brown kid in my class and that meant I got teased a lot—for smelling like curry (I never dared bring any to school), for being “hairy,” for having an accent that I clearly didn’t have.
One time, I got invited to a birthday party. Everyone’s invitations were done by hand and featured balloons with bright colours. When I got my invitation, my balloons were all coloured in brown. The colour of “poo,” I was told by the birthday girl, because it matched my skin. She thought it was hilarious and I acted like I did too. I laughed along because it was easier than defending myself and because it hurt less to pretend I was in on the joke.
This isn’t the worst racism I experienced, but I was reminded of it today when yet another photo of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau emerged in brownface. Donning his “Aladdin” costume at an “Arabian Nights”-themed party for private school staff, Trudeau is seen with his (very darkly coloured) arms around two Sikh men. The men appear to be smiling. But I wonder if they felt the same way I did—like they had no choice but to laugh along as a former prime minister’s son openly mocked their culture.
In the past 24 hours, three separate incidents of Trudeau wearing brownface have emerged, complete with photo and video evidence. Two of the photos, published by TIME magazine and CANADALAND, respectively, are from the aforementioned party held for West Point Grey Academy staff and parents. Trudeau, age 29 in the pics, taught at the posh private school on Vancouver’s west side, where tuition is more than $20,000 a year. Another photo, published by the Globe and Mail, shows a teenaged Trudeau doing blackface while performing “Day-O” in high school. Meanwhile, Global News has obtained a video showing Trudeau wearing blackface—his face, arms, and legs painted—as he cheers and sticks his tongue out.
Trudeau faced Canada’s mostly white parliamentary press corps Wednesday night, where he apologized for his behaviour.
“I take responsibility for it,” he said. “It was a dumb thing to do. I’m disappointed in myself. I’m pissed off at myself for having done it. I wish I hadn’t done it but I did it. And I apologize for it.”
He also noted that he tends to go over the top with costumes. “I’ve always—and you’ll know this—been more enthusiastic about costumes than is sometimes appropriate,” he said.
Well, thank god he addressed the enthusiasm issue! But we have a few more questions for Trudeau, ones he didn’t address or blatantly dodged Wednesday night. And if he expects people of colour to trust him again, he should think about coming up with some decent answers.
Why was dark skin your go-to costume?
Let’s be clear: this wasn’t a one-off lapse in judgment for Trudeau. Funnily enough, when asked if there were more than two times he did something racist, he said, “These are the situations I regret deeply.” Thursday morning, Global published the video of him in blackface. I guess he doesn’t regret that one.
Trudeau said when he did brownface at the Arabian Nights party in 2001, he didn’t realize it was racist, even though no one else who appeared in the photos wore brownface.
But let’s for a moment take him at his word. What exactly did he think it was? Did he think it was complimentary? Did he think that brown people would be flattered that he would paint his face and arms and legs (you almost have to admire the commitment) the shade of the night sky in an attempt to “appreciate our culture?” Is that also what he was thinking on his trip to India last year, where he went so far as to wear a groom’s outfit?
Maybe he thought it was funny. Strip away the prime minister title, and he’s a privileged white dude who grew up in a bubble and thinks it's cool to say things like “I'm like 1/16 Malaysian.” He was raised partially in Quebec, which has a long history of blackface. He probably got a kick out of imitating Apu’s accent on The Simpsons. I’m speculating because he hasn’t actually explained his motivations, and we deserve to know what they are.
When did you realize doing blackface and brownface are racist? And do you know why it’s racist?
Despite being the son of a prime minister (or maybe because of it), apparently no one told Trudeau that wearing blackface and brownface is racist. He was asked to explain why it’s racist last night and he gave this explanation:
“I think it’s well-known that communities and people that live with intersectionalities and face discrimination, the likes of which I have never personally had to experience, is a significant thing that is very hurtful and that is why I am so deeply disappointed in myself.”
While that is a true statement, it doesn’t answer the question. It doesn’t indicate that Trudeau has any clue about the very damaging history of blackface—about how Black people were mocked via awful caricatures and black paint during minstrel shows. His answer doesn’t reflect that he realizes that painting himself to mirror dark skin is dehumanizing, how cultures are not something he can “wear” like a costume whenever it amuses him.
Why should people of colour forgive you?
Trudeau spent a good amount of time talking about how he wants Canadians to forgive him. He said he’s worked his entire life to fight racism and systemic discrimination. But his blackface/brownface fetish makes it pretty hard for people of colour to do that. Trudeau makes a big display about diversity, but now I have to wonder if he’s actually just laughing behind our backs. Because when you wear our skin as a costume—repeatedly—it sure feels that way.
“I’m pissed off at myself,” he said, likely cussing in an attempt at appearing more authentic. But that’s not good enough. Has he put in any work, read any books? Has he had anti-racism and anti-oppression training? Also, can he stop saying versions of “this isn’t Canada” whenever something racist happens? It’s patronizing and obviously untrue, as his own actions have proven.
People of colour have put a lot of trust in Trudeau over the years and he has damaged it badly. If he wants it back, he’s going to show what he’s done to earn that. A sound bite will not suffice.
Are you going to tell your kids you were racist?
I don’t particularly care how Trudeau parents his kids, but someone from the press gallery asked what he’s going to tell them so I’d like to address his answer. He said he was going to talk to them about “owning up to mistakes,” taking responsibility, and being a better person. His answer was revealing in how self-serving it was—the image of someone owning up to their mistakes is as positive a spin as he can put on this scandal. But I would have appreciated if he’d said he was going to tell his kids why what he did was racist. But I guess he would have to learn that first.
And finally, a note to my white colleagues in the press
Please stop sharing memes and jokes with us as if this whole thing is hilarious, because to us it isn’t. Your humanity isn’t being questioned here. Ask thoughtful questions and do some research on your own because educating white people is exhausting. When possible, elevate your POC colleagues and their voices.
Realistically, these incidents are unlikely to sway people’s votes away from Trudeau, but let’s take a moment to at least acknowledge how painful blackface and brownface are for the people in those communities. Not everything has to be about the end result.
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