As a Canadian, first-generation immigrant, and person of colour, I spent the week reflecting on the Trudeau blackface scandal and have some thoughts. I’ll start with sharing where I was when #blackface hit.
I was in Chicago for the inaugural Liberating Evangelicalism conference. About half of attendees were Christians of color. All plenary speakers were Christians of color. About half (maybe slightly more) women. The movement to decolonize and decenter whiteness in the church is picking up steam led by leaders of color. Spaces like this are rare in Canada. As the odd Canadian in the space you can imagine my surprise when not two speakers in Justin Trudeau’s blackface scandal was blasted.
Canadians care more about what Americans think of us than Americans think of us. Make sense? However, I learned that with the advent of Trump, and subsequent resurgence of white supremacy, many Americans look elsewhere for political inspiration. Trudeau HAD star appeal embodying the political antithesis of Trump. That is HAD. When #blackface hit the swell of disappointment in Canada was matched by the Americans in my midst, much to my surprise. What wasn’t a surprise to people of color was yet another supposed white ally revealed as the typical white man with power.
My feelings are a mixed bag of profound disappointment and “I told you so”. I’m disappointed but not surprised. After all, our history is founded on the colonial mandate. On top of that, we have intentionally built a narrative that feigns racial innocence. We have trouble with honest and in-depth conversations on racism because we believe as a nation we don’t even have a problem. America does, but not us. We are behind when it comes to wrestling with our complicity in maintaining deeply embedded systems of racism in Canadian culture. Sure, when racism is out in the open we denounce them. But in the same breath, we quickly claim “an isolated incident” that’s “a far cry from the moderate center of society”. It sure is convenient to explain away hatred and stupidity. But what if that hatred, and the systems that support it, aren’t so fringe?
First, the issue at hand. Canada is in the midst of a federal election. Rather than the US election cycle that gets underway over a year in advance, we have to contend with two months of campaigning. Not bad. In the midst of campaigning, someone released multiple images of Prime Minister Trudeau donning black and brownface. How does something so odious and insensitive happen? We need to talk about formation.
Earlier this Summer my friend aptly reminded me who Trudeau was. He grew as a Quebec elite. That’s to say his world is not the average Joe’s. He holds a bias deeply formed by his privilege. It produced a Justin that thought blackface was OK. Now a person can change a lot in 18 years (since the multiple blackface pictures were taken). I’m convinced of that. And sure, we can judge someone based on their whole record (not hard to find a string of good or bad narratives). But that doesn’t negate the fact what Trudeau did was deeply racist. It was, it is, and although he may not be an avowed racist today–and here’s the critical piece–does he still reflect and uphold the same racist worldview that formed him? He can work really hard to grow, but formation runs deep. So although he apologized, in most ways he’s unable to see through his white (French) colonizer roots. It’s inescapable. But it’s not merely his own formation we need to talk about. We have to go deeper and talk about our formation as a country.
The Air We Breathe
Systemic racism is something we have trouble talking about in Canada. (As a quick recap: racism=prejudice + power.) Racism is evil but it’s not something that exists only when you can see it. It’s more like the air we breathe. The roots of racism, like an iceberg, extend deep within culture. We tend to think of racism as the swastika spray-painted on the synagogue, or the KKK marching in the streets (or whatever white supremacist gang is lurking in the shadows these days). It is, but it’s much more. Racism is multi-faceted and deeply ingrained in every aspect of Canadian culture. That includes a never-ending list of things like: church institutions, finances, banks, legislation, bylaws, law enforcement, etc…. So when we see egregious examples of racist acts, like blackface characterizations, that’s racist. But don’t forget the world that produced a way of thinking, one that remains unseen yet very much at the heart of national identity.
Now What for POC?
Which begs the question: what should a person of colour, or anyone really, do this upcoming election? What are the options if it’s not blackface Trudeau? Let’s take a look.
- The official opposition, the Conservative Party of Canada is one. But if Trudeau is #blackface then the Conservative Party is white supremacy face. They are a comfortable home for the soft version of white supremacy dubbed “white nationalism”. The party is slow, if they ever, to respond and disavow any far-right extremist support. That should make any person think twice. So the CPC isn’t it.
- Maybe you’ll move to the NDP led by Jagmeet Singh. He had a fantastic response to the Trudeau blackface.
Everyone should watch this response from Jagmeet Singh. I don’t think you can say it better than this pic.twitter.com/FCCXVEGgfD
— Robyn Urback (@RobynUrback) September 19, 2019
- But he’s also known by white folks as the leader in the turban. That shouldn’t matter but it does, especially for the province of New Brunswick. The party at one point couldn’t field a single candidate because the understanding was nobody would win as, get this, New Brunswickers would never vote for a man in a turban. 14 candidates jumped ship to the Green Party. (***EDIT Sep 28th. Thanks to Adam Kilner, NDP candidate in Sarnia, for pointing out the deeper story behind the NB ‘exodus’. Here’s a National Post article that partly clarifies.***)
- Next are the Greens. See above. They took the NB NDPers with open arms (kind of). So that’s not the solution either even if you live on the far left of the political spectrum. It seems white supremacy doesn’t care about political persuasions. It’s all about power and upholding institutional systems that benefit certain people.
- Lastly, we have the PQ which is a Quebec separatist party. Then you have the real white supremacist party (PPC), or what the media would label as the alt-right (and happily covering), who should be able to steal a handful of votes from the CPC.
And that’s it. Those are the options. Not much to choose from hey?
There are some positives in the midst of the blackface debacle. Although Canada struggles to have an honest conversation on racism and how deep it’s woven into the fabric of our country, at least we’re making progress. If those blackface photos came out 18 years ago we probably would’ve treated it with more acceptance (or less interest). It may have been regarded as culturally insensitive, but outwardly racist? To me that’s progress. Although the media remains dominated by white voices, they did run with blackface scandal which reflects a shift in acceptable rhetoric. Also, there are more people of colour less ashamed of calling out mischaracterizations and racism. So maybe we are more open for a deeper conversation to address troubling issues like the expansion of white supremacist ideologies, Quebec Bill 21, missing and murdered indigenous women, or anything indigenous related really.
Some who lament the loss of privileges associated with white supremacy may deflect the entire scandal as a symbol from an overly sensitive culture. I guess being sensitive to racism is considered a bad thing. But a return to the ‘good ol days’ where one could lay prejudice in the open unscathed is worse. Luckily those days seem to be over and to me that’s great. But does that mean people of colour have full access to the table of power? Be it politics, churches, institutions, education, legislation, media, anywhere in society really, we have access, but power? Not yet. In the meantime, we have to figure out how Canada works as it changes and the demographic shifts away from white Euro-centric thought. We’ll have to start by digging deeper in the wounds of racial prejudice, a place we’re not quite ready to go.
But we should.