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Why the scandal around Justin Trudeau’s racist costume hits close to home

Nedda Sarshar

In fourth grade, I brought ghormeh sabzi to school that my grandmother had cooked the night before. It wasn’t long before my white deskmate leaned over to stare at my food, and after a moment of staring, scrunched up her face and pulled away.

“That looks like diarrhea,” she declared to the whole class, and from then on I was known as “the poo girl,” even though I never dared bring ghormeh sabzi—or any Iranian dish for that matter—back to school again. 

I have not seen that girl in over a decade, but as it is the age of social media I am kept painfully up-to-date about her life since we parted ways back in grade school. She’s an established journalist now, having attended a prestigious school in the UK, and she writes a lot about important issues—with a focus on refugee and migrant families from the Middle East. Her writing is effective and her subjects are real. On Facebook, her articles are showered with praise and compliments from well-meaning fans. It’s sort of a game I play with myself to read the articles, read the comments, and smile bitterly to myself. 

I thought of my old classmate on Wednesday evening when the picture of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in brownface (which, of course, is derivative of a longstanding racist tradition of blackface) emerged and the whole of Canada watched as the last remains of Trudeau’s “progressive brand” came undone before the world. 

It’s hard to find someone more praised and celebrated than a white person who starts saying what Black, Indigenous, people of colour (BIPOC) have been saying the whole time. Since being elected as Prime Minister he has benefited enormously from an internationally acclaimed image of “woke bae”, feminist, and refugee saviour. His campaign and platform promised to change the shape of Canadian politics—away from the “boys club” that had dominated the Prime Minister’s office. 

The day after the photos emerged of his past life as a seemingly frequent (at least more than a single-occasion) blackface/brownface enthusiast, Trudeau admitted that his privileged upbringing had left a “massive blind spot” to certain racist acts. 

Rhetoric surrounding the brown face incident has seemed to divide people into two camps—those who are gleeful to see Trudeau fall off his pedestal, and those who are defensive of his intentions and unwilling to let an “honest mistake” dismantle all the good the Prime Minister has done for visible minority communities. Unfortunately, neither of these approaches provides much room to allow for an honest assessment on the state of race and ethnic affairs in Canada, and both take away from addressing the real victims of white peoples’ “honest mistakes:” the BIPOC who have had to bear the brunt of racism.

I attended a private school very much like West Point Grey Academy. Small, mostly elite, and predominantly white. I can recall white students pulling their eyes whenever they talked about our East Asian science teacher, or interrupting conversations I would have with my younger brother to say: “This is Canada, we speak English here.” At the time, it seemed easy to distinguish between the kind white teacher that wanted me to play the only non-white character in a school play, and the tons of blatant racism I felt at the hands of my peers. Now that I’m older I can recognize that there was a greater responsibility on the white teachers that taught at these schools to advocate for their students of colour. I can’t say I would have been hurt at the time if I saw Justin Trudeau in brown face at my school gala—but I can say with relative confidence as I grew older and began to understand the intricacies of growing up brown in a predominantly white environment, that he was certainly not on my team. 

I agree with Prime Minister Trudeau that his privilege has a role to play in wearing blackface/brownface with little consequence at the time for his actions. But if his privilege kept him from seeing how his actions were racist, then his privilege also kept him from being called out and critiqued for his behaviour. His privilege also allowed him to build a reputation as a squeaky clean progressive leader who presented himself as a messiah for non-white communities in Canada, while maintaining the privileges that came with his own skin colour and affluent background.

We often speak of white privilege as an unfortunate side effect of a post-racist society. People say that white people cannot help having white privilege. That they obtain it in the same way that BIPOC inherit being racialized and oppressed. We are to think that Trudeau did and could not have known better, that in the Canadian utopia that he was raised in discussions about the terrible suffering injected on people with non-white skin were not covered. 

Choices were being made throughout the different incidences of blackface/brownface that Trudeau put on. There was the choice of his white peers to not come forward and critique his decision to wear it. There was the choice of the institutions that he worked for and attended for allowing an employee to represent their school in brown face, and likewise allow a student to dress in blackface and perform “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” before a student body. And finally, there was the decision of Trudeau himself to regularly wear blackface/brownface, and choosing to keep silent about it until it was no longer an option to do so. 

There are also other decisions being made in Canada today that tie directly to a history of white supremacy and racism. The decision to not take action against Quebec’s ban on religious symbols, or the pursuit of an environmental plan that harms Indigenous communities being only a few examples of many. Trudeau’s stance on these policies is not separate from his history of using brown and blackface—it is in reflection. 

I do not doubt that today’s Justin Trudeau is very different from the 29 year old school teacher in brown face, or from the high school student in blackface in another. Just like I do not doubt that the classmate who made fun of my food probably does not do such things anymore. But if we cannot create opportunities to reflect on how growing up with white privilege comes at the expense of the oppression of non-white folks, then we are only contributing to a racist society, not improving it.

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