While blackface minstrelsy began in the 1830s, its popularity soared after the Civil War as a means to belittle African-Americans and support white supremacy. It appears little has changed.
Last week, Time magazine published an expose on Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, showing him in brownface almost 20 years ago while attending an “Arabian Nights” themed party as a teacher at a private school. Almost simultaneously, a video was released by Canadian news network Global News, revealing another instance, dated to the early 1990s, of Trudeau dancing in blackface, with his arms and legs also covered in dark makeup. During a press interview afterward, Trudeau admitted to another episode in high school, in which he wore blackface to perform a Jamaican folk song. Trudeau was approximately 29, 19 and 17 years old at the time of these events respectively.
Should wearing blackface discredit someone, ruin a career and publicly humiliate the individual? The case for Trudeau and blackface raises these questions and others related to the nature of our society, the racism implied with blackface and how such racist actions are emblematic of the other class, gender and racial issues of our time. In an attempt to answer these queries, we must understand Trudeau’s political history and determine if his more recent behavior makes up for his earlier racial indiscretions.
Trudeau has been championed by liberals in Canada, the United States and across Western Europe for his progressiveness; however, a close examination of his record is not as transparent and optimistic. The day after declaring a climate emergency, Trudeau signed into law a multi-billion dollar tar sands pipeline expansion, betraying his promise to respect the land and rights of indigenous peoples. Furthermore, his government continues to sell billions of dollars in arms to the bonesaw-wielding Saudi Arabian government. Earlier this year, Trudeau was also found to have violated a federal conflict of interest law in efforts to protect a corrupt corporation. Yet, he was—and perhaps still is—beloved by many liberals for his gender-balanced federal cabinet, marijuana legalization and acceptance of refugees and immigrants rejected by the U.S.
So, given this seemingly contradictory history of racism mixed with progressivism, what role do the recent exposures have on Trudeau’s career as a politician? The release of such images is often met with calls for resignation. In the U.S., we are not strangers to the exposure of public figures in blackface. CNN has a growing list of politicians noted to have engaged in such white supremacist behavior in the past. Most recently and notably among these is Virginia Governor Ralph Northam. Much like Northam, Trudeau is unlikely to willingly leave office. However, the Canadian people may decide otherwise in the upcoming elections.
The three recent exposures of Trudeau—a leader known internationally for acceptance—raises questions to the power of such actions. Transcending Trudeau, it begs the question for all leaders, public figures and, frankly, people: does and should one act define you? Should it cost you credibility, your job and respectability from peers and the public?
This question is multifold and situational with no easy answer. In examining the case of Trudeau, I would say yes and no. For starters, Trudeau only apologized for his actions after they were discovered and released by the media. Thus, the question is raised about whether he does truly regret what he did or if he is simply trying to save his political career, especially with the impending election. Had Trudeau acknowledged this behavior and the blackface incidents out of transparency earlier in his political career, while it would have been no less disturbing or racist, it could have been used for growth and discovery. Some might still argue—rightfully so—that there should be no reward for simply acknowledging repeated racist acts. While unequivocally true, there is something to say for someone who comes forward with a disturbing history out of a desire to better oneself and others like them.
Similarly, we must ask, should transparency have the power to destroy you? And again, there is no simple or clear answer. There is a spectrum of remarks and actions, each which must be carefully investigated and addressed. In seeking an answer, we should analyze how the actor in question responds, not in the press releases immediately following the exposure, but in what they do in the coming weeks and months. If one genuinely regrets something in their past, subsequent actions should reflect efforts to learn what it meant for people affected. For Trudeau, it would mean talking with people of color to understand how his actions affected them and how he can use his position to foster respect rather than hostility.
A final component of this scandal is how the acts intersect with privilege. That is, class, race, religious and gender privilege. Justin Trudeau—like many accused of blackface—is a wealthy, white Catholic, whose father was also the prime minister of Canada. While we do not control the circumstances of our births, we can control what we do with the power which accompanies them. Furthermore, Trudeau’s indiscretions should be understood as an abuse of his power at the cost of others. They should be a call for us to address not only racism on an individual level, but at a systemic level across a variety of Western societies. We have all made mistakes, had moments of thoughtlessness and poor behavior. After all, the society in which we are raised, whether in Canada, the United States or elsewhere, breeds us with certain biases, conscious or not. As difficult as the conversations will be, we must admit our mistakes and accept what consequences they should have. This is as true for Trudeau and his blackface as it is for others engaging in racist or sexist acts. To do otherwise is to forgo efforts to understand and remedy the underlying causes, namely racism, sexism and classism.
Jordan Reif is a second-year student majoring in political science, minoring in chemistry
and biology. When she’s not trying to make one meal swipe last her three days, she is
reading Marx and saving the bees.