September 19, 2019
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, everybody’s All-Canadian, is under fire for appearing as Aladdin in brownface makeup at an “Arabian Nights” themed gala thrown by the West Point Grey Academy. Trudeau was a teacher at the time. The photograph, which was published by Time yesterday, appeared in the school’s yearbook for the academic year 2000-2001.
The costume is not subtle or open to interpretation; he dialed it straight up to eleven. To his credit, he owned it immediately, though his apology was two-parts boilerplate, one part odd.
“I shouldn’t have done that. I should have known better and I didn’t. I’m really sorry,” telling reporters he was also “pissed at himself.” When asked if he thought the costume was racist, he didn’t equivocate. “Yes it was. I didn’t consider it racist at the time, but now we know better.”
When asked if more pictures were coming, he admitted to another incident in high school, in which he performed the Harry Belafonte hit “The Banana Boat Song/Day-O” song while wearing blackface.
And then, this: “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 said.
Trudeau joins a long line of public figures who have been outed for not noticing that they were enjoying racist revelry in the past.
Virginia Governor Ralph Northam decided that the best way forward when confronted earlier this year with an Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook photo of a man in blackface that was identified as him—and standing next to a man in Klan outfit—was to simply forget whether he’d blackened his skin and showed up looking like a fool at a party in medical school.
The outcry eventually went away. But political spectacle aside, the Northam case was a missed opportunity.
“We all believe in the tradition of personal growth, for ourselves and for other people; there is an acknowledgment that people change, and that storyline is built into our culture and belief systems,” Arthur Markman, a professor in the department of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin told the BBC about the incident.
Unfortunately, that’s not the case in winner-take-all arenas, like politics.
“But that is overlaid with how politics is always competitive, and part of it is to exploit the weaknesses of opponents—for so knowing that, there is a fine line to tread for politicians about how much to admit and address specific allegations,” says Markman.
For what it’s worth, The National Council of Canadian Muslims thanked Trudeau last night for his swift apology, after tweeting a statement from executive director Mustafa Farooq calling the prime minister’s photo “deeply saddening.” He went on to explain exactly why.
“Seeing the Prime Minister in brownface/blackface is deeply saddening,” said Farooq. “The wearing of blackface/brownface is reprehensible, and hearkens back to a history of racism and an Orientalist mythology which is unacceptable.”
While reporters and political opponents will be combing through the archives looking for more of Trudeau’s misplaced cosplay enthusiasm, I hope everyone spends as much time learning about the disturbing history of Orientalism and its attendant racism.
And, I expect that there will be plenty to find that will implicate all sorts of people who simply didn’t know better at the time. Again, we have Northam to thank for this insight.
An expensive investigation into the provenance of the Northam picture showed that 10 blackface photos were published in the EVMS yearbook from 1976 to 2013. That’s a lot of people —including friends, family, and faculty —who failed to notice that a bunch of future health care professionals were doing something racist and hurtful.
While it’s up to Canadian voters to consider Trudeau’s record and the needs of their nation, it’s up to everyone to do some archival soul-searching.
After all, even if you don’t notice your complicity in racist, misogynist, or bigoted behavior, it still leaves a mark.