On Wednesday night, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized for wearing brownface to an Arabian Nights themed party, saying he didn’t know such behaviour was wrong at the time. But experts in anti-Black racism reacted with skepticism, saying such acts have always been racist, and that there had been public debate over such issues long before 2001.
“There was never a time when blackface was okay,” says Kathy Hogarth, a University of Waterloo associate professor in social work, though she says blackface and racism have also always been acceptable to some people. “The level of acceptance with something that is wrong doesn’t make it right.”
Trudeau has been under fire since Time magazine published a photo of him wearing brownface makeup and a turban at a party hosted by West Point Grey Academy, a private school in Vancouver where Trudeau, then 29, was a teacher.
In a news conference, he acknowledged it was racist and that he shouldn’t have done it, and also admitted a second instance in which he sang “Day-O” in blackface. Then on Thursday morning, Global News posted a new video clip of Trudeau in blackface, sticking his tongue out, during the early 1990s.
Experts say it’s hard to accept the Liberal leader’s claim that he didn’t know better back then because blackface, the act of painting one’s skin a dark colour, is steeped in racism, and well before 2001, opposition to this type of exaggerated imitation had been raging.
“It’s totally disingenuous,” says Rinaldo Walcott, director of the University of Toronto’s Women & Gender Studies Institute. “By 2001, when he would have been 29 years old, there would have been debates around these concerns.”
Blackface was part of the getup used in minstrel shows performed first in 1830s New York, in which white actors with darkened faces, exaggerated lips and tattered clothing mimicked African slaves and plantation workers. They were portrayed as lazy, cowardly, hypersexual thieves, allowing poor and working-class white people to advance their own status by playing on stereotypes about Black people.
As Ryerson University assistant professor Cheryl Thompson notes in an opinion piece she wrote for the Star, this genre loomed large in Canada in the 1850s right through to the 1960s, performed regularly at high school graduations, summer camps, churches and more.
“After the 1960s, however, as a wave of socio-cultural shifts swept across North America, such as multiculturalism and affirmative action in the United States, coupled with more diverse representative on television and film, blackface was no longer accepted as routine,” Thompson writes.
Through the ’80s and ’90s, there were “massive debates” about blackface, race-based advertising and images of Black criminality, Walcott says.
It was in 1993 that actor Ted Danson faced heavy criticism for appearing in minstrel blackface and using the N-word throughout a comedy roast for his then-partner Whoopi Goldberg at the Friars Club in New York. An Associated Press article from that time quotes the city’s first Black mayor, David Dinkins, saying that when Danson made jokes about racially mixed kids, Dinkins’ white wife began to cry.
Trudeau in a turban in brownface draws on more than just anti-Blackness, Walcott notes, saying it also playing on the orientalist image of Arabs and Muslims. “The image of the Arab as devious, as dangerous has a long history. It didn’t just come after 9/11 in 2001,” he says. “When you see a figure dressed up like that, this is not just pantomime, it’s a deeper tenor of the culture that we live in.”
Hogarth says she’d like to see more than just an apology from Trudeau; instead, we need more deliberate action to fight racism in Canadian institutions, she says. “What I want Trudeau to be able to do is … talk about what is our action plan for eliminating racism in our education system, because that’s where it became evident for him.”
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