The Blackface Scandal Tells Us More About Canada's Systemic Racism Than About Justin Trudeau | Opinion

On September 18, 2019 TIME magazine reported that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wore brownface in 2001 at an "Arabian Nights" themed party hosted by his then-employer, West Point Grey Academy (a private high school in Vancouver, British Columbia.) As one friend put it, Trudeau's skin was so absurdly dark, even Rihanna's inclusive 40-shade makeup line could not serve his minstrel commitment. Immediately, Canadians of all political stripes, suddenly, gained an acute interest in combatting racism—or so they claimed.

The Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer, who opposed the UN Global Compact on Migration to appease anti-immigrant sentiments, claimed that Indigenous Peoples "hold hostage" Canadian interests, and demanded only apologies from his own candidates in the event they had actually espoused racist views (while refusing to apologize himself for bigoted statements, not at themed parties, but in the House of Commons,) said he was "extremely shocked and disappointed" with Trudeau's actions, and that those actions made Trudeau unfit to govern. I'm not buying it. At least the more conservative People's Party of Canada Leader, Maxime Bernier, was consistent in his inability to recognize racism, while also demonstrating a complete misunderstanding of the many differences between blackface and dragdehumanization and celebration are opposites, not analogs.

So, how should Canadians respond to this scandal? Four points, I think, are critical.

First, we should let this moment be an opportunity to reflect on Canadian racism. Many continue to deny racism's systemic force in Canada. They urge this, despite Canada's legacy of slavery and segregation, despite 40 percent of Canadians thinking too many immigrants are visible minorities, despite Canada's past and present policies amounting to genocide against Indigenous Peoples, and now, despite Canada's Prime Minister, a white man, repeatedly wearing racial minorities as a costume to parties, thereby continuing Canada's extensive history of blackface. I do not know what kind of evidence would be necessary for someone to acknowledge that Canada has a racism problem. But, with Trudeau's actions added to the laundry list of racial transgressions, we have surpassed reasonable doubt. When the dehumanization of black bodies is so normalized that a teacher can wear blackface without concern, you have a racism problem, period. And, to be clear, identifying the systemic nature of racism is not a hypocritical means of insulating Trudeau from moral culpability, as some conservative pundits claim; rather, it is critical to understanding how racism operates. It is frustrating to have to retread this basic proposition about racism, but racism is, at its core, not about racist people, but the racist society that empowers them. So, Trudeau should be criticized for wearing blackface and brownface. But our primary—not only—concern should be the attitudes that naturalize racial logics, not the fact that all of us, unfortunately, succumb to those logics. Given racism's structural character, its individualization is its immunization.

Second, as should always be the case, our response to this scandal should be measured. I'll be blunt: I care a lot more about the systemic forces that normalize the caricaturization of racial minorities than the discrete manifestations of that caricaturization. In other words, I care more about structural anti-racist policy, than individual (albeit repeated) racist practices. With that in mind, I would question anyone who would veer politically right because of Trudeau's blackface scandal. If racism upsets you, clean up your house, or, if anything, move to the other house next door. It is incoherent to transition to a party who is doing greater harm to racial minorities on the pretense of adamant respect for those minorities. Instead, recognize how environmental, immigration, criminal, health, housing, and economic policy all adversely impact racial minorities, and demand that your party—whichever party that may be—do more to promote racial justice.

Third, while I welcome everyone into the complex conversations needed to improve Canadian racial consciousness, we should recognize the character of this issue, and how that character informs the authorities relevant to its resolution. Just as I generally defer to scientists about the causes and consequences of global warming, I recommend a general policy of deference to racial minorities about the harms of blackface and brownface. We can all debate general values and philosophy, but when a particular issue distills to whether a marginalized group finds something upsetting, questioning their emotional response is not only insensitive, but overlooks the well-documented role of blackface in the dehumanization of Black people, and the perpetuation of white supremacy.

Lastly, we should be realistic about how the Trudeau blackface scandal informs our electoral choices. Racist costumes can be telling about an individual's judgment and character. But if someone wearing blackface to a themed party tells us a lot about his perspective on race, surely another's endorsement of a racist anti-immigrant hotline tells us more.

The Trudeau blackface scandal is, of course, scandalous. But that scandal should not overwhelm all electoral criteria. We should consider parties' and members' past, present, and future; consider their attitudes; consider their policies; consider their priorities; and then vote, with all that—not just Trudeau's racist costume choices—in mind.

Joshua Sealy-Harrington is a J.S.D. candidate at Columbia Law School and lawyer at Power Law. His research and practice centres on marginalized communities, particularly sexual, gender, and racial minorities. He is a former law clerk at the Supreme Court of Canada and Federal Court. Follow him on Twitter @joshuasealy

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​