Here's why Trudeau is getting the benefit of the doubt on blackface


Adam: Here's why Trudeau is getting the benefit of the doubt on blackface
What we know about him as prime minister says he is no racist. A bigot would not pick the cabinet he did, or open doors to immigrants the way he has.
The Ottawa Citizen, Mohammed Adam
Updated: September 24, 2019

Justin Trudeau balances a baby during a campaign stop in Niagara Falls earlier this week. Cole Burston / Getty Images

Justin Trudeau has been justifiably condemned for wearing blackface. He clearly did wrong and should have known better. For any candidate other than party leader, this would be a firing offence. When Trudeau wore a blackface 18 years ago as an adult, it was as offensive then as it is today. Pleading ignorance out of a privileged upbringing is a lame excuse.

Unfortunately, the discussion has focused not on what an opportunity for change this could be, but on the political consequences: who loses and who benefits. Many have taken the opportunity to mock Trudeau’s commitment to diversity, but offered little else.

In homes and around coffee tables in minority communities, a different debate has been raging. I have sat in on some of these debates and they have been intense and emotional. For many, Trudeau’s blackface is something of an “Et tu Brute?” moment. The feeling is one of disappointment and betrayal. Many of us are still trying to reconcile the Trudeau who named the most diverse cabinet in Canadian history; the man who led a generous nation to welcome thousands of Syrian refugees most countries wouldn’t take – with the man in blackface. It just doesn’t square up.

Beyond that, many people directly affected by the blackface incident, and still keen on diversity, are debating one basic question: What’s the alternative? If Trudeau is not the one to advance diversity, who else is? If Trudeau can’t be trusted on diversity, who can we trust? Diversity is very important, so which leader, which party, is stepping in to pick up the mantle? The other party leaders have simply made political capital out of Trudeau’s misfortune and moved on. Trashing Trudeau may be good politics, but where’s the big discussion, the big vision on diversity and race relations going forward?


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NDP leader Jasmeet Singh has said the right things but offered nothing compelling by way of concrete plans. Neither has Green leader Elizabeth May. That leaves Andrew Scheer in the driver’s seat, but few in the racial-minority community believe the Conservatives will champion diversity. People still remember the proposed Niqab ban in citizenship ceremonies, and the “barbaric cultural practices” snitch line of 2015. That’s why for minorities, the issue is not as cut-and-dried as some might think.

There is also a larger issue to consider. One of the more vexing questions about Trudeau’s behaviour is why no one stopped him when he first did it in high school. Why didn’t a parent, teacher or principal tell him it was wrong and to stop? Blackface dates back to slavery and school authorities knew, or should have known, that it was offensive. And when he showed up with a brownface as a teacher in 2001 – not 1800 – why didn’t anyone intervene? This is as much a reflection of society as it is of Trudeau at age 29.

But there could be a silver lining in this dark moment.

Trudeau’s faux pas could be a teachable moment for Canadians. If we didn’t know that wearing blackface for whatever reason is offensive, now we do. Unequivocally. Wearing blackface is not dress-up and it’s not fun. It’s not like dressing up as a Viking or sailor to a party. Blackface is offensive because its history is steeped in slavery and racism. People did not wear blackface to celebrate or honour black people. Slavers and their kin wore blackface to mock, degrade and humiliate blacks. That’s why it is wrong and not to be done.

What we know about Justin Trudeau as prime minister says he is no racist. A bigot would not pick the cabinet he did, or open doors to immigrants the way he has. But he was wrong to wear blackface, and it is something he has to live with. Trudeau has apologized and Canadians as a whole will decide if his apology is good enough. For many of those directly affected, however, Trudeau’s indiscretion is not considered an unforgivable sin. Flawed as he is, they still believe he’ll do more for diversity than the alternative. That’s why he is getting the benefit of the doubt.