It should be harder to accept that myth after the last week of news about Canada’s ostensibly enlightened and progressive leader. Not once, but a few times did Justin Trudeau take to brown paint to go native in the heart of some darkness, smiling and cocksure.
In one photo, the first to surface and broken by Time, Trudeau, then a 29-year-old educator, is “dressed up in an Aladdin costume,” per his own words, at an “Arabian Nights” party thrown by the West Point Grey Academy in 2001. Dark like a scorched corpse, the turbaned Trudeau stares into the camera while his flat, dusky hand clasps the clavicle of a light-skinned companion. The second portrait, reported shortly after the first, shows Trudeau blacked up for a performance of the Jamaican song “Day-O,” most commonly known for its rendition by Harry Belafonte. The third visual is in motion: In the video posted by Global News, a shaggy Trudeau lifts his arms and bares his tongue, playing the savage. And yet another photo from the ill-conceived 2001 affair has been made public.
More archaeological material may very well meet the public in time, as all of these images have so suddenly (and so conveniently). I have this pet theory that nobody plays the darky just one time.
These stills are about as exciting as so many clipped and scattered toenails, gross and jagged in their own way but still an unspecial nuisance. Minstrels never died out, and America’s first and perhaps only original art form traveled the globe. The supposed shock, though, is not that the glee of racial masquerade traverses borders, but that this blackened-up face isn’t in keeping with Trudeau’s white benevolent visage — or that of the supposedly benevolent nation he represents. That surprise belies a certain willful ignorance, as if the white person who says nice things cannot have a racist past — or present.
One has to be specially obtuse to miss the symmetry between the smiles of Trudeau’s past and present — the minstrel and the politician. No sooner was the first image published than supporters and unaffiliated bystanders hurried to defend it. They still argue, in tweeted replies and Facebook comments and wherever else debate can be found online, that the performance is an aberration, no matter how many photographs are added to the pile.
On Thursday, the Globe and Mail spoke to a conspicuously diverse set of voters out and about in Trudeau’s Papineau, riding for their thoughts on the racist costumes. Though nobody let him have it, the white (or white-passing) among the nine seem to take special care to not only forgive Trudeau, but diminish the significance of blackface — ultimately suggesting he did nothing worth apology in the first place. “We should leave in the past what happened in the past,” said a young-looking person named Moéra Lafleur. “I think this whole thing was unnecessary.”
This preemptive insistence on the harmlessness of the act is a familiar performance of its own. America annually revives its own undeveloped discourse on blackface; this year began with the passion of Gov. Ralph Northam (D-Va.), who appears in his 1984 medical school yearbook in either blackface or Klan robes (we may never know which). Despite public pressure to resign from major figures within his party, Northam had plenty of support and remains in his post. Who among us hasn’t tittered behind some racial makeup, apologists wonder.
But neither can so many vocal critics be trusted. In the name of political party crossfire, Republicans lambasted Northam; while responding to the news of the prime minister, Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer denounced “open mockery and racism,” calling Trudeau “not fit to govern this country.” This just days after Scheer pledged a rather forgiving creed on racist and homophobic incidents in his party’s past. This latest scandal from our neighbor to the north amplifies not only a single politician’s personal history, but also the living contradictions of whiteness, progressive or otherwise.
As Scaachi Koul wrote in the New York Times shortly after Donald Trump took office, “The idea that Canada is a safe space is a lie — and an easy one to catch for anyone who has actually lived here as part of a minority group and watched how the country chooses to forget about you.” She reprised this critique for BuzzFeed following the recent hoopla: “Our prime minister has built his reputation on being the Reasonable One, the Non-Trump, the Good Boy. … But, unfortunately, though Canadians tend to do things with less zeal, it seems our leaders are pulling the same s--- anyway.”
Not unlike his bromantic partner in memes, our former president Barack Obama, Trudeau has long appropriated the vernacular of radical change without fully interrogating white power. He’s given Trump pats for military violence in Syria and approved a multibillion-dollar pipeline expansion, disturbing some First Nations groups and undermining his environmentalist cred.
Canada under Trudeau remains more hazardous for those exposed to racist citizens and overpolicing (or rather: policing) by the state. “It’s easy, in a country like Canada, to take diversity for granted,” Trudeau said in 2015. This is true — if only because politics in the name of diversity never means having to materially improve the conditions of people credited with manifesting diversity for existing.
“In forty plus years of Canadian multiculturalism,” writes University of Toronto professor Rinaldo Walcott, “diversity has been largely discredited as a practice, idea, or process that can produce the kinds of social, cultural, political, and economic change and impact that would render the long terrible and brutal history of race and racism null and void.”
Writing for the late publication Grantland, Wesley Morris described what he called “the trapdoor of racism,” the unexpected reminder that an inoffensive white person is still white, with all attendant baggage. “For people of color, some aspect of friendship with white people involves an awareness that you could be dropped through a trapdoor of racism at any moment, by a slip of the tongue, or at a campus party, or in a legislative campaign.” The folly, though, is the unconditional trust: something Trudeau never earned from the people who matter most. Where Trudeau is concerned, Americans should feel foolish for being surprised that the politician who is neither a friend to us nor many of his people took racism for a spin more times than he can recall. It shouldn’t have taken blackface to show us that. But, then again, nothing feels so solid as the split moment before a fall.