Trudeau Won’t Wash Off His Blackface Scandal

Racist images taint a prime minister who painted himself as a liberal savior.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife Sophie Gregoire pay their respects at the Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar on February 21, 2018.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife Sophie Gregoire pay their respects at the Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar on February 21, 2018. Narinder Nanu/AFP/Getty Images

Canada’s election campaign is only a week old, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s governing Liberal Party has been firing off a new bit of opposition research every day. There were leaked videos of the Conservative Party leader, Andrew Scheer, decrying marriage rights for same-sex couples; videos of his candidates vowing to roll back abortion rights; past social media posts from one candidate proclaiming he’s “proud to be white!”

But things took an unexpected turn on Wednesday night. Two photographs of the prime minister himself surfaced. One, found by reporters, shows him staring out onto a crowd, microphone in hand, an afro wig on his head, his face darkened by makeup. Another, sent to Time magazine from a school yearbook, depicts him grinning from underneath a turban, sporting white robes, his face so dark it looks almost supernatural. In the former, Trudeau is just a teenager. In the latter, he’s nearly 30, working as a teacher in a Vancouver private school.

The prime minister has framed the election as a do-or-die decision between himself and those looking to take Canada “backward”—on women’s rights, on LGBTQ rights, and on the rights of minorities and immigrants. Yet in an era when every digital morsel can be swept up by a hungry press, a candidate looking to live by his opposition research also has to be ready to die by it. The photos, of Trudeau wearing blackface and brownface, have knocked his campaign on its side. Trudeau’s attacks on Scheer now seem not only hollow but outright hypocritical. And they speak to the continued impact of racism in a country that prides itself on having moved beyond the past.

Trudeau went before reporters on his campaign plane on Wednesday night in a show of self-flagellation.

“I shouldn’t have done it,” Trudeau told the cameras. “I should have known better, but I didn’t. And I’m really sorry.” The Liberal leader took a slew of questions, repeating his apologies again and again. When pressed on why he was so adamant about needling his opponents about their past problematic views but deserved forgiveness for his own missteps, Trudeau seemed unable to convey a straight answer.

There were only those two occasions, he insisted.

Scheer stepped off his plane to address the cameras, delivering just a few sentences before heading off into the night.

“What Canadians saw this evening is someone with a complete lack of judgement and integrity and someone who is not fit to govern this country,” Scheer said, taking no questions. But that was a curious pivot for Scheer, given he had, just a few days earlier, insisted he would not fire candidates for things they had said in the past, be they on race, religion, gender, or sexuality. (“I accept the fact that people make mistakes in the past and can own up to that and accept that. … People can say things in the past, when they’re younger, at a different time in their life, that they would not say today,” he said.)

The most credible skewering of Trudeau, however, did not come from Scheer. It came from the leader of the New Democratic Party (NDP): Jagmeet Singh, himself a turban- and kirpan-wearing Sikh born to immigrant parents.

“I’ve faced a lot of racism in my life,” Singh said in a public message. “I’ve fought back.”

“The kids that see this image and the people that see this image are going to think about all the times in their life that they were made fun of, that they were hurt, that they were hit, that they were insulted, that they were made to feel less because of who they are,” Singh said. He addressed such kids of color directly: “You might feel like giving up on Canada,” he said. He urged them not to. “I don’t want you to give up on Canada, and please don’t give up on yourselves.”

It was an emotional message more than a political one. He admitted that he almost skipped the opportunity to make a statement Wednesday night.

Singh is in a unique spot in this election: The first nonwhite leader to helm his party into a federal election, he has struggled to gain traction in a bloody match between Trudeau and Scheer. As leader of the center-left NDP, Singh has tried to position himself as a progressive and working-class alternative to Trudeau, but he has also prioritized policies that speak to the struggles faced by minorities—in the past, he has talked about a federal ban on random police checks and an end to the war on drugs.

From the start of the election campaign, it often seemed Singh’s race was working against him. A raft of defections from his party to the Greens came amid one organizer’s concerns that his race and religion were turning off some voters. Pundits and reporters have consistently pronounced Singh’s first name incorrectly. (“The A is pronounced like a U,” he told me once. “So it’s ‘Jag,’ like ‘hug.’” Many have failed to grasp that lesson.)

In Quebec, where the NDP has done well in the past, the provincial government passed legislation that bans public servants in various roles, including police officers and teachers, from wearing obvious religious symbols. It’s a law that has already excluded hijabi women from the school system, and it would clearly preclude Singh from various jobs in the province. Despite its impact, the law remains popular.

But Singh has mostly jousted with Trudeau for votes, with both candidates battling for center-left voters—especially women, racial minorities, and youth. And that’s where the hypocrisy of Trudeau’s position really stings.

Blackface is usually thought of as a U.S. problem. “It would be difficult to invent a more condensed summation of the enduring legacies of white supremacy and antiblack racism in US American popular culture than the uncanny photograph in [Virginia] Governor Ralph Northam’s page in the 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook,” writes Kellen Hoxworth in this fall’s edition of The Drama Review. The image, which the governor claims is not of himself, sparked a firestorm in Virginia last year. An investigation could not determine whether it was, in fact, Northam, but the point endures: The image of a man in blackface, pictured next to someone in the robes of the Ku Klux Klan, opened wounds of America’s racism, past and present.

As Hoxworth writes in his article, so much of the supposed humor around blackface wrapped around the idea that it was temporary. To be painted up in blackface was a sin, but there was joy to be found in washing it off—returning to the safe embrace of whiteness.

“Instead of being ‘tragically’ removed from office, Northam has scripted a scenario of comic restoration in which he might continue his career long enough to cleanse himself of blackface residue,” Hoxworth notes.

Hoxworth even picked up on Trudeau’s story on Twitter, noting that racist attitudes among different countries in the English world “have always been entangled together.”

The photos in Northam’s yearbook date back 35 years. Trudeau’s first dalliance in blackface came around the same time. Not only was his face darkened with makeup, but he was performing “Day-O,” or the “Banana Boat Song,” a traditional Jamaican folk song popularized by Harry Belafonte.

But the timing of the second photo is especially sharp. It was taken in 2001. Trudeau was 29, working as a drama teacher in an expensive, predominantly white private school. While others at the Arabian Nights-themed party were dressed in costume, Trudeau is the only one in the photo wearing the racist makeup.

Given the year, Trudeau’s insistence that he didn’t know it was racist at the time feels disingenuous. A year prior, U.S. director Spike Lee’s Bamboozled was released, sparking a new national conversation about blackface and racism. The movie portrayed a black television executive who pitches a wildly racist show of racial stereotypes and black actors doing blackface in an elaborate attempt to get fired.

“People think because the blackface was done away with, the minstrel show was done away with,” Lee told an audience in Detroit around that time. “But it’s more complicated than that.”

And it’s not as though Canada doesn’t have its own legacy of this style of racism.

Indigenous peoples have long been viewed as costumes to emulate for white Canadians. Throughout the 19th century, parents would dress their children up in fashioned or stolen aboriginal garb in order to “play Indian.”

And there was lots of rationalizing that went into that practice. White Canadians were interested in acting out a “contrived and nostalgic representation of the Indian,” wrote Hilkka Ingrid Forster, who published an exhaustive study of pictures of Canadians appropriating indigenous clothing and skin color. “The Indians they were playing, however, could not actually exist in their modern society; Native peoples, during that time, were meant to assimilate, give up their cultural practices and were segregated.”

Trudeau’s grinning face under the thick layer of dark makeup, even in a black-and-white photo, echoes a similar attitude. A patronizing, tin-eared send-up of a culture he neither belonged to nor understood. It’s not the first time Trudeau has fallen into that habit. Last year he was politically battered by critics after a disastrous trip to India where he offended Indians and Canadians alike with outlandish attempts at dressing in local custom.

What might be most damaging of all is that there’s more to come. While Trudeau was adamant on Wednesday night that this happened only twice, a video was published by Global News on Thursday morning of a third incident. While the context of the video isn’t clear—namely where it was taken, or when—it appears to show Trudeau in blackface yet again. Given Trudeau held back mentioning this video when asked directly, it has led many to wonder: Are there more?

It’s hard to divine the extent of the impact this scandal will have on Trudeau’s reelection chances. In Quebec, at least, it seems unlikely to do much damage—the acceptability of blackface is still an ongoing debate in the Francophone province. A 2014 skit, which saw a white actor donning blackface to play the NHL player P.K. Subban, attracted a number of defenders who insisted it was not racist but simply a part of French theater culture. More recently, a prominent director has tried to stage plays in the province that would see white actors singing slave songs while picking cotton and a play about indigenous heritage that featured no indigenous actors.

Outside Quebec, however, this saga—and Trudeau’s handling of it—is sure to turn off voters across the political spectrum. Whether that ultimately benefits Scheer, who has tried to sand all rough edges off his campaign, or Singh, who has tried to reclaim the progressive mantle, remains to be seen.

Trudeau’s electoral chances aside, the ordeal exposes the deep divide between the multicultural utopia imagined by white Canada, an idea often exported to the rest of the world, and the experiences nonwhite communities face. The incarceration rate for black and brown Canadians, as well as indigenous peoples, is wildly disproportionate to their share of the population, as is violence visited upon those communities. Hate crimes targeting religious minorities are increasing. Parliament remains stubbornly nonreflective of Canada’s ethnic and religious diversity.

Given Trudeau’s own assumption of the mantle as champion for marginalized people in Canada, it’s hard not to wonder if that arrogance is still around.

Trudeau may find the paint won’t wash off so easily this time.

Justin Ling is a journalist based in Toronto.

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