TORONTO — The image of a smiling Justin Trudeau in a turban and dark makeup is unquestionably offensive, but law professor and former Ontario human rights commissioner Errol Mendes says the rest of the bombshell photo is more telling — a row of smiling friends, arm-in-arm with Trudeau, seemingly unfazed by the overt racism.
“(It’s a) classic example of what we in the anti-discrimination legal and academic community call unconscious racism,” Mendes says Thursday from his University of Ottawa office. “And that is the reason why it’s not staggering — because it happens every single day, in every single place.”
The astonishing image is among several that have emerged depicting the Liberal leader in blackface, beginning with the 2001 photo published by Time magazine in which the then-29-year-old can be seen in an Aladdin costume with his hands, face and neck darkened.
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When confronted by media covering his federal election bid Thursday, Trudeau acknowledged and apologized for the incident, in which he dressed up for a theme party at the private school where he was teaching at the time.
He also confirmed another photo from his high-school years in which he appears with darkened skin to perform a version of Harry Belafonte’s song, “Banana Boat Song (Day-O)” at a talent show.
And there was more to answer for — a video published by Global News on Thursday showed a young Trudeau in blackface again, sticking his tongue out for the camera and raising his arms over his head.
The fact Trudeau engaged in multiple incidents stretching from his teens to adulthood did not sit well with Ryerson University professor Cheryl Thompson, author of “Beauty in a Box: Detangling the Roots of Canada’s Black Beauty Culture.”
“I think for most of his life he’s been disconnected from reality. But let’s be fair, what politician in Ottawa isn’t disconnected from reality? I don’t think he’s unique in that sense,” says Thompson.
“My reality as a black woman in Canada is completely different to a white male living in Alberta or even a white male living in this very city that I live in and that’s OK. It’s about acknowledging that we have different experiences and different realities. There are people in this world that just don’t want to hear any of that.”
Nevertheless, Thompson says she was impressed with Trudeau’s live address Thursday, in which he admitted his lifelong privilege “comes with a massive blindspot” and insisted “it doesn’t represent the person I am.”
Mendes, raised by Indian parents in Africa and England, says that limitation is understandable, and likely true for many Canadians whose social circles don’t extend beyond their own race: “If they don’t have experience living with differences they sometimes fail to understand that degrading stereotypes are in fact, racist.”
Even allowing for that, McGill University professor Charmaine Nelson found it hard to believe Trudeau didn’t know better in 2001, when he would have been 29.
“He needs to do some soul-searching if this is a pattern for him,” says Nelson, an art history professor whose research includes post-colonial and black feminist scholarship.
“Most Canadians who participated in this, post-1980s even, they knew they were doing something wrong, they just didn’t care… To get to 2001 and not know that or claim to not know that and be from such an esteemed, elite, educated family, that is very hard to believe.”
Nelson adds that such flagrant acts of cultural insensitivity have “a very deep history in Canada,” noting that minstrel companies toured Canada in the mid-to-late 19th century.
Such stage performances faded in the 20th century, she says, but the practice moved instead onto film and television. Nelson recalls the insertion of minstrel characters in popular children’s cartoons including “Tom and Jerry” and “Bugs Bunny,” which can still be found on YouTube.
Although those broadcast images have died out, those harmful caricatures persist underground, she notes, pointing to off-campus university “ghetto parties” and the endurance of race-based Halloween costumes.
As for whether he deserves forgiveness, Mendes looks to Trudeau’s record of action — a cabinet that includes minorities and women, his welcoming of Syrian refugees and his fight against Islamophobia: “Apologies are easy, I place more emphasis on words and actions.”
Nelson, too, says the images are not enough to affect how she decides her vote.
“Who is the same person they were in 2001? I’m not,” says Nelson.
Perhaps this can be a wakeup call, suggests Thompson, who hopes the media frenzy will spark broad conversation about bridging cultures and peoples.
“It’s when you disconnect from who (other cultures) are and you don’t even see them as you, you see them as something else, that’s when you can do things that are really hateful, you can call them a racial slur, you can dress up as them,” says Thompson.
“To me, this is a great moment for white people and racialized people to get to know one another because the more you know one another it’s just impossible to be racist.”
Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press