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Trudeau in blackface

  • Published at 06:04 pm September 23rd, 2019
Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during an election campaign stop in Toronto, Ontario, Canada September 20, 2019 Reuters

Is this a symptom of Canada’s widespread anti-Black racism?

The news that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau performed in blackface when he was a student and a teacher has once again made blackface the topic of the day -- this time in the middle of a Canadian election campaign.

The revelation that, as a 29-year-old teacher, Trudeau appeared in blackface at an “Arabian Nights” fundraiser at his school has made news around the world. Other images subsequently surfaced that showed a young Trudeau performing in blackface at high school talent shows. The controversy over Trudeau’s actions should be front-page news. Blackface, wherever it occurs, is a racist practice, rooted in deeply anti-Black motivations, regardless of whether those who commit it and enjoy it realize this. 

But in these instances, what we most need to pay attention to is not the intent or the level of ignorance of the person who wears blackface. Rather, our focus needs to be on the embedded racial logics that drive blackface and the negative impacts of the practice on Black people.

An alluring practice

We must ask ourselves why blackface has been, and continues to be, such an alluring practice when non-Black people want to have fun — and why this continues to be so, even though Black communities have always vociferously objected to blackface.

In other words, it occurs at a time when meaningful decisions can be made about the direction the Canadian government might take to address the issue of anti-Blackness. 

These recent incidents, like those before it, confirm the existence of a widespread anti-Blackness. This is what informed Trudeau’s return, again and again, to blackface: He was assured his friends and colleagues would enjoy his shenanigans. 

This anti-Blackness is also systemic. That’s why it occurs so often in institutional settings. For example, it recurs in educational settings, as it did with Trudeau. It recurs among police officers. Where anti-Blackness is not expressed as wanton violence, it is often expressed as a complete disregard for the histories, the lives, and the voices of Black people.

Canada’s criminal justice systems are virulently anti-Black -- which explains why we tolerate the over-surveillance and disproportionate Black deaths at the hands of the very law enforcers who are supposed to protect us, at least in theory.

Our education systems are virulently anti-Black, which explains why blackface recurs where Black people have to go to school. It also explains the pervasive omission of our histories, our scholarship, our perspectives and our stories from education curricula.

On and on … it’s entrenched

Our child welfare systems are virulently anti-Black. Arts and entertainment is virulently anti-Black. Media is virulently anti-Black, and on and on. Anti-Blackness is entrenched, and we are all implicated. 

When we choose to individualize blackface incidents, when we make them solely about labelling the person who wore blackface as “racist,” when we suggest that blackface says more about personal failings than about the systemic anti-Blackness of which blackface is only a symptom, this serves to absolve everyone else -- primarily ourselves -- from thinking about our implication in anti-Blackness. 

We lose sight of our individual and collective obligation to demand and take action against anti-Blackness.

The appropriate response to Trudeau’s blackface cannot be the politics of deflection. On the one hand, it cannot be about empty apologies that claim little more than ignorance, “insensitivity” or even “privilege,” which rectifies very little. On the other hand, it cannot be about finger-pointing, “disappointment” or “shock,” which deny the endemic nature of anti-Blackness.

The appropriate response should not be for the electorate to cast their votes based on a cult of personality. Instead, they should scour the party platforms for evidence of commitment to counter anti-Blackness, to pose tough questions and vote accordingly if there are none.

The most anti-Black outcome from this latest story would be for it to eventually blow over without any substantive change to what Black people might expect from elected officials. Black people and our issues cannot continue to be pawns in a grand chess game that ultimately serves to deflect attention from what Black people really want. 

Philip SS Howard is Assistant Professor of Education, McGill University. A version of thie article previously appeared on The Conversation UK and has been reprinted under special arrangement.

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