Shortly after it surfaced, Trudeau apologized repeatedly, saying, “I should have known better, but I didn’t.” He also said he was “more enthusiastic about costumes than is sometimes appropriate” — which would be highly relatable, except we’re talking about racism, not costumes.
I’m not sure it’s my place to accept or dismiss Trudeau’s apology. Nor is it, say, Conservative leader Andrew Scheer’s place to preemptively accept blanket apologies from anyone who may have harmed a particular group. But this is where we are — which is to say, not anywhere particularly good. And I can’t help but think about the Trudeau photos, and the revelation that he also wore blackface in high school while singing Harry Belafonte’s “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song).” (Another video has since surfaced of Trudeau also in blackface.)
Every Halloween, we experience a flare-up of a specific truth: White people get to play with race. They get to move in and out of race, molding it like fresh play dough for their purposes. It’s a benefit of white privilege to do so in circumstances where no one will shame you for it — such as at a private school. But it’s tied to a history of white supremacy.
White supremacy and racist mockery have been connected for a long time. It is no coincidence that the rise of Jim Crow laws and the spread of minstrel shows happened simultaneously. (“Jump Jim Crow” was an early minstrel song.) As institutions did everything they could to make the lives of black people untenable and unlivable, a culture developed to make those lives a joke, extending the reach of the state into the language of daily life. What they could not destabilize by act and deed, they undermined by mockery. In Canada, blackface ran as rampant and as recent as it did in the United States, as the writer Bashir Mohamed has documented in the prairie provinces and the academic Cheryl Thompson is uncovering.
Brownface, (or Orientalism, to give it its proper name) and “playing Native” are indelibly connected to and built into that history. The “comical” subjugation of a people can rarely be separated from efforts at their material deprivation.
And the joke is on us. After these revelations, Canada’s party leaders — excluding New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh — are bound to point accusingly at one another like an overly formal Spider-Man meme. The Quebec nationalist Bloc Québécois … well, let’s just say that’s part of their job. Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party of Canada, which ought to be ignored, will try to minimize the harms of racism. Singh will be pulled into a conversation on race that has been the subtext of his tenure and is now making itself text. He will perform admirably, showing grace where none is required. It is as predictable as it is meaningless.
By all accounts, none of the white party leaders are avowed racists (except Bernier, who dabbles). But that’s not the actual standard for political power. It’s not about who has or hasn’t used racial slurs, but about who can and will govern in direct opposition to racism. It’s a relatively new standard in Canadian politics — but it applies.
There’s another story in this, too. Elections are invasive times; we peer into the lives of our potential elected representatives. There are few boundaries, and what few there are, we trust our media to evaluate. Yet, a U.S. publication scooped the country’s media. And it did so in the fourth election that Trudeau has stood for — the second in which he has been party leader. Canada’s media, like its other institutions, should reflect on its willingness to take race seriously.
What was missing was a fuller picture — beyond that frankly alarming photo — of who Trudeau was, and who he became. Like his feminism, his feelings on race were assumed more than investigated. The journalists — mostly white — who missed the story are not ideally placed to explain it now.
No doubt, the Liberals have over-promised in rhetoric and under-delivered on specific promises. Trudeau has responded with smugness when called to task on his personal failings. But under Scheer, the Conservatives have dabbled in falsehoods about refugees and the Global Compact for Migration, obviously anti-black messaging about refugees, and standing side-by-side with our own nascent racist “yellow vest” movement. All of those give me pause. Neither of the front-running party leaders is untainted.
Still, the racist thing is racist. That is not up for debate, though it will be debated. But racism — and indeed homophobia and misogyny — are hardly political levers to be pushed and pulled at will. Whatever points are being won or lost are being marked on the lives of people who most need a government that will defend and support their racialized lives.
White people get to play with race as if it is a game. For those whose lives are pieces on the game board, I feel nothing but a deep sense of resignation.