Well, isn’t this embarrassing. Our national election campaign has dissolved into a quivering puddle of racial angst thanks to a set of 20 year old photos showing our Prime Minister playing dress-up in various skin colours that don’t belong to him. His polls are down 1.268 percent in the national horse race, and progressive, right-thinking citizens are faced with a terrible conundrum: Do they condemn the Prime Minister for his thoughtless racism and risk letting the dreaded Conservatives take the election, or stay silent and endure the guilt of being complicit in the Prime Minister’s oppression of people of colour everywhere?
Forgive me for being glib. There’s a serious issue here, but I find it a bit hard to keep a straight face with the amount of overwrought vitriol that is floating around. I’m sure I will attract my share of it by the end of this piece, but please hold your fire for a moment and consider whether investing such seriousness in Justin Brownface might in fact be distracting from more serious and intractable cases of racism. This article in The Tyee lists a dozen examples of racism that are far more worthy of discussion than Trudeau’s 20 year old party photos. Incarceration rates and the number of children in foster homes, both of which are disproportionately high for indigenous people are two good examples.
Actually, that’s a false equivalence. The high indigenous population of our prisons is not the same kind of injustice as what Trudeau did. It is something else entirely. Both masquerade under the word racism, but they are otherwise completely different issues. One is an example of structural oppression. The other is a display of prejudice. The challenge is that the structural issues — the racism that is serious, worth discussing, and hard to solve — are less photogenic, and therefore less media friendly, than our Prime Minister in costume.
What’s wrong with this? Well for starters, the photos are an obvious dead cat. This being an election, it’s no accident that they emerged in the middle of it. They were timed to embarrass Trudeau when it would hurt him the most. Global News even quoted Andrew Sheer as the source for the video they released.
I have to wonder what the dead cat is distracting us from. Who is responsible for throwing it on the table in the first place? Aside from the obvious political damage to Trudeau, what else are they trying to achieve?
The situation feels a bit like revenge porn: Trudeau has been caught on camera with his pants down, and the evidence of his transgression is being published widely by someone with an axe to grind. Whoever tossed the dead cat has also crossed a moral line. Who is worse? If we extend the revenge porn analogy, the publisher is the true villain, but in our situation I suppose it depends on how serious we think Trudeau’s crime is.
So how serious is it? Earlier, I called it a display of prejudice to distinguish it from structural racism. Prejudicial racism is the racism we think of intuitively: Treating someone differently based on the colour of their skin. Prejudice is person to person; there’s a perpetrator and a victim. It’s not clear to me the Trudeau’s actions — or brownface in general — qualifies as prejudice. Who is the victim? The two smiling Sikhs who Trudeau has his arms around in the photo? Granted, he’s dressed as an Arab, not a Sikh, but there doesn’t seem to be much cultural tension in evidence. Perhaps there’s an offended Arab off camera, though putting it like that seems mildly prejudicial in itself, as though it were a stereotypical trait of Arabians to be offended.
Offended Arabians aside, it doesn’t seem like brownface fits easily into the box of prejudice, and if the racism isn’t structural and it’s not prejudicial, then what kind of racism is it? At risk of exposing myself as a non-expert in racism, the best answer I can come up with is that the history of blackface in America has been generalized and exported. As I understand it, blackface was a theatrical practice that was problematic for at least three reasons: It allowed white performers to keep black ones out of the entertainment industry and reinforced segregation, it promulgated false stereotypes about black people, and it appropriated black culture to mainstream American culture.
The first reason clearly does not apply. The context is a party, not a performance; Trudeau isn’t putting any actors out of work, whatever the colour of their skin. The third doesn’t seem relevant either. It’s hard to be definitive from a photo alone, but the costume is so clownish it’s hard to imagine it’s appropriating anything. Only the second seems remotely applicable to Trudeau’s situation. He does seem to be reinforcing a certain false image of Arabians, but again, it’s so obviously cartoonish that it’s hard to take seriously. If I’m not mistaken, he’s dressed up as Disney’s Aladdin, which does have an issue with promulgating stereotypes, but that makes Trudeau more of a patsy than a perpetrator of racism. I think the worst that can be said of him is that he’s participating in a flawed aspect of American culture, which we have also adopted in Canada.
I don’t think it’s fair to eviscerate Trudeau for participating in American culture, even if that culture is a bit racist. Participating in culture is what people do. It’s automatic and habitual, and it seems unfair to attribute malice or poor judgment to Trudeau for acting within those cultural norms. It may have been deserving of criticism when it happened twenty years ago, but it isn’t enough of a skeleton in the closet to be worth bringing up so long after the fact. In this situation, the culture was more problematic than the person. I do think this is an excellent opportunity to have a discussion about how that culture might be racist, and that discussion is happening. But, I don’t see how 20-year-old brownface photos belong on the list of factors that should influence how we judge our politicians (and, by extension, how we vote).
The age of the photos is important. I wonder if these photos would have attracted a similar reaction back in 2001 when they were taken? I was in high school in 2001. I would say it’s a near certainty that something similar went on at my high school. Does that mean we were more racist back then? Maybe. Or maybe our ideas about racism have shifted.
As it happens, I can recall a halloween in Grade 2 where I went trick-or-treating in brownface. I dressed up as Prince Caspian — a fictional character from C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. To the best of my knowledge, Lewis never specifies the good prince’s race, though culturally I think we can assume he is Christian and English. That means I (or perhaps my mother) added brown skin as a feature of the costume. What did it mean for me to do that? Was it racist then? Is it now? It’s hard for me to fit this situation into the racism box. I get zero for three when I consider the three factors I identified earlier: I wasn’t appropriating culture; the character I played was very much within my own cultural background (English). I wasn’t perpetuating stereotypes; if anything I was breaking stereotype by implicitly recognizing brown skin as belonging within a white literary world. And I definitely wasn’t taking jobs from non-white actors.
Perhaps I’ve missed something, or perhaps I need a lecture about white privilege, but I’m unable to find the racism in my brownface costume in no matter how I squint at it. I see it as something different: An expression of that great Canadian value, multiculturalism. I was taught that Canadian multiculturalism is distinct from the American melting pot because we celebrate our differences, rather than expecting newcomers to assimilate. The Canadian way is to have multiple cultures, not to homogenize them all into one. That’s a very high minded difference, and perhaps more idealistic than the reality in both countries, but I think it means something, and I think that something is important in evaluating both Trudeau’s behaviour and how we think of brownface in general.
That something is this: Celebrating our differences means more than just staying in our cultural lane. It’s not enough to just acknowledge our differences and say your skin is brown, mine is white, and can’t we all just be who we are? If we are to truly celebrate those differences, we need to understand what makes them worth celebrating; we need to experience first-hand what it’s like to wear somebody else’s skin.
Which brings me to brownface. I don’t know why I decided Prince Caspian had brown skin. But I do know that I was playing a character, and in doing so, I was learning what it was like to be someone else. That’s what dressing up is about. Did I learn anything about what it was like to have brown skin? Probably not, but the point is that skin colour was a way to make myself not me. The potential for learning was there. And that potential disappears if we consider it racist to play at being someone else.
If we are to be multicultural, we need to be able to share culture with each other. We need the freedom to adopt new bits of culture from people who are different from us, and we need the openness to be honest about how we perceive cultures that aren’t our own, even when those perceptions are negative or skewed. How can we learn from each other if we are not permitted to share how we see each other?
To me, this makes the Canadian context for brownface different from the American one. Blackface in America meant whitewashing black culture so it could be safely considered part of the mainstream (cultural appropriation). And it created a caricature of black culture that did not allow outsiders to truly understand the black experience in America (stereotyping). Brownface in Canada lacks such a specific history — our opinion of it is extrapolated from the American context. How would it look if we interpreted it in the context of Canadian multiculturalism rather than American history?
For one, cultural sharing works differently. Multiculturalism means there is less urgency for the mainstream to own all of its cultural practices. Canadian culture is fundamentally one of borrowing, and we like to acknowledge and celebrate the original source. And, while we are certainly not immune to stereotypes, our assumption that having multiple cultures is a normal part of being Canadian does mean we are used to dealing with differences, and that makes us conscious of when we do not have the whole cultural picture.
That’s a very black and white picture, if you’ll pardon the expression. Canada is not a multicultural utopia, and America is certainly more diverse than the myth of the melting pot would suggest. To some extent, both stories apply in both places. But, if the ideal of multiculturalism has any power at all, I think it’s worth noticing that brownface doesn’t have to be racist. And, if we believe in multiculturalism, we should also believe that acknowledging and talking about our differences can be healthy. Taking on someone else’s appearance can be done to mock and offend, or it can be done to learn and communicate. Or, it can simply be done in play.
In Trudeau’s case, it seems to have been mostly play. His brownface was not done maliciously, nor was it intended to offend. His costumes are cartoonish to the point of mockery, and I think if the photos have genuinely caused offence (and not just partisan self-righteousness), that mockery is the reason. It’s not hard to see the photos as disrespectful.
But I think we have now answered the question of how serious Trudeau’s crime is: Not very serious. Whoever leaked his photos for political gain deserves a harsher judgment than Trudeau himself. Of the ways his actions could be construed, racist is only one of multiple possibilities, and, if we choose to believe in the ideal of Canadian multiculturalism, it’s not the most salient one.