Why Do Canadians of Colour Dismiss Trudeau’s Blackface?

Research and awareness may explain why Canadians cannot see overt racism.

Alexas Fotos / Pixabay

When I first read about Time magazine revealing on September 18, 2019 an old photo of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in brownface, I thought: someone is muckraking, and what is brownface, anyway? Then I saw the photo. Then I saw the photo and video Global News discovered of him in blackface. Blackface I’ve known for decades is an outward sign of internal racism. I’m still processing this aspect of Trudeau’s character that I’d never have guessed at. I could not imagine even Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, whose party has been accused of racism, wearing blackface or brownface.

But what really threw me onto my heels was the response of some people of colour on radio. One Caribbean-Canadian woman said she faces overt racism every single day, so what’s the difference with Trudeau wearing blackface. She’ll vote for him. Another leader of a Black community organization instructed there were bigger issues. A lawyer asserted people are too sensitive. They conflated his blackface photo of when he was in high school with his brownface one and the video when he was an adult as also being a teenager doing high jinks, being “more enthusiastic about costumes than is somehow, is sometimes appropriate,” as Trudeau cast it.

I’m aware that Canada, being a country of immigrants that views itself as not racist, barely educates students on racist acts like blackface and doesn’t educate adult immigrants. And so I understand why immigrants from India and elsewhere would be unaware of blackface history and see it as dressing up. But why would those who face discrimination daily, know and see blackface as a racist act, and are appalled by it then say: “Move on. He’s not a racist. I’m voting for Trudeau.”?

A non-racist cannot by definition do a racist act.

My first thought was: this is like Stockholm Syndrome, where the captors align themselves with their kidnappers or, in this case their oppressors, in order to stay safe. My second was that we’d already seen signs of racism in this election. Whereas Canadians trumpeted the candidacy of Barack Obama as historical for Blacks, they dismiss the historicity of the first Federal party leader of colour, Jagmeet Singh, rationalizing it as not having a chance to win and so won’t support him. Is the response to Trudeau’s racist enthusiastic embracing of blackface part of the reason why Canadians cheered Obama but jeer Singh?

Fatima Syed wrote an analysis piece in the National Observer on 19 September 2019:

“. . . the first-ever racialized candidate for prime minister in Canada . . is bearing the burden to denounce them all, while facing media reports that are surveying voters who say that they would vote for him only if he took off his turban and “be normal like us.”

“A National Observer survey into the make up of candidates across the five political parties found that, other than the NDP, the remaining parties are not representative of Canada’s visible minority population — black, Indigenous or people of colour — which Statistics Canada finds amounts to at least 25 per cent.”

The NDP clears this bar, as around 32 per cent of the NDP’s 310 candidates are visible minorities, 20 of whom are Indigenous and 22 who are Black Canadians.”

Internalized racism includes minimization or acceptance of oppression.

Wikipedia on internalized racism explains the Appropriated Racial Oppression Scale (AROS) as designed to measure internalization of oppression by all racial minorities.

In the AROS, Campón and Carter use items such as “There have been times when I have been embarrassed to be a member of my race,” “I would like for my children to have light skin,” and “People take racial jokes too seriously” to assess an individual’s level of internalized racism.”

This last is the kind of minimization we’re seeing in Canadians of colour. Trudeau cannot be racist with his 2015 co-opting of Toronto’s motto “Diversity our Strength,” creating the first cabinet made up of 50 percent women, and putting men in turbans in important portfolios. That is what Trudeau projected to Canadians.

A former senior advisor to the Liberal government, Omer Aziz, told CBC radio’s The House on Saturday, September 21, 2019:

“Sometimes a slip of the tongue is not just a slip of the tongue. It’s a slip of the mask,” he said to host Chris Hall.

“I basically had to leave my dream job because of racist prejudices that went unacknowledged.”

Trudeau presented an outward face of diversity; behind the scenes, it was racist business as usual including in the department of his greatest champion, a woman, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland. Trudeau’s well-emoted and expressed apologies exposed his present-day racism.

He admitted to it only when caught.

He indicated embarrassment but not shame in his second apology.

Blackface and brownface shames people; Trudeau expressed no shame in wearing it.

He didn’t take responsibility to explain why he no longer sees blackface and brownface as acceptable, when he learned its history, how blackface marginalizes Black Canadians. The Canadian media on his campaign bus, universally white, did not challenge him on any of this. Internalized racism by so many Canadians didn’t, either. Worse, it motivated people of colour to push back hard against those who said: this is important, and we must reconsider Trudeau in light of these revelations. This push back allows white progressive Canadians to opine: I accept his apology; move on; Trudeau is not racist because people of colour see no problem.

Just as President Bill Clinton was cast as the first American Black President, Trudeau was cast as the first Canadian feminist and person of colour Prime Minister. I’ve slowly come to realize how false these narratives are. A white man cannot represent women nor people of colour, yet these narratives allow progressive Canadians of all backgrounds to maintain the status quo and not act to incorporate the experiences and points of view of either women or people of colour.

“Too many Canadians have refused to acknowledge in this election — and every election before this one — is that Canada’s political spaces continue to be disproportionately white and yet are also shaping policies that impact the lives of racialized people.”

Fatima Syed, National Observer, 19 September 2019

The false narrative around Trudeau allowed most of us Canadians of colour, unconsciously driven by internalized racism, to accept his rationale of having “long been known to wear traditional clothes” for him dressing up in Indian dress on his official 2018 visit to India. It allowed some to rationalize his booting out of caucus an Indigenous woman. And it prevents many from seeing that an adult male who enthusiastically runs around in blackface like the stereotype of Black man as monkey, is racist.

How can we combat the power of internalized racism to perpetuate systemic racism? The first step is for media to not only educate people on the history of blackface and brownface but also on internalized racism and how it maintains oppression.

Copyright ©2019 Shireen Anne Jeejeebhoy. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission.

%d bloggers like this: