The Real Cost of Trudeau’s Brownface Bombshell

Peter Shawn Taylor
October 13, 2019
Justin Trudeau’s weird propensity to slather his face, his body and even his tongue in brown or black makeup provided ample material for low comedy, high dudgeon and genuine thoughtfulness – a teaching moment, if you will. Instead, the multiple revelations were soon hijacked by fakery: fake anger, fake apologies and fake history. There’s been nary a whisper of humour, save perhaps the wag who dubbed Trudeau Canada’s “Prime Minstrel”. Mainly, there’s been weary resignation and rationalization from Liberal supporters. Peter Shawn Taylor takes a balanced look at an immense and fraught subject – blackface – and explains why Trudeau’s crass campaign to save his neck does damage to culture, history, art and freedom.

The Real Cost of Trudeau’s Brownface Bombshell

Peter Shawn Taylor
October 13, 2019
Justin Trudeau’s weird propensity to slather his face, his body and even his tongue in brown or black makeup provided ample material for low comedy, high dudgeon and genuine thoughtfulness – a teaching moment, if you will. Instead, the multiple revelations were soon hijacked by fakery: fake anger, fake apologies and fake history. There’s been nary a whisper of humour, save perhaps the wag who dubbed Trudeau Canada’s “Prime Minstrel”. Mainly, there’s been weary resignation and rationalization from Liberal supporters. Peter Shawn Taylor takes a balanced look at an immense and fraught subject – blackface – and explains why Trudeau’s crass campaign to save his neck does damage to culture, history, art and freedom.
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Credit where it’s due: Justin Trudeau is very, very good at apologies. Last month’s images of the Prime Minister in face paint would have ended the career of nearly any other politician in the land. And while the revelation did throw the Liberal Party’s campaign off the rails for a few days − and likely smudged its leader’s “diversity-is-our-strength” halo − it seems to have had little permanent effect.

After several days of imaginative and repeated apologies from Trudeau, the Liberals were still polling in the same minority government territory they were before the pictures surfaced. The campaign quickly got back to work promising voters an unaffordable collection of goodies, paid for with an ever-larger federal deficit. Even at a personal level, the scandal refused to stick. When The Globe and Mail ran a page’s worth of interviews with voters in Trudeau’s home riding of Papineau in Quebec, the consensus was that his penchant for dressing up was no big deal, even among visible minorities. Some even suggested the whole thing was just a smear job by his rivals. “I would elect him again just to show the world that enough is enough when it comes to tarnishing reputations during political campaigns,” resident Mario Labelle told The Globe

Trudeau’s apology express, however inconsistent and questionably sincere, seems to have kept him in the federal election fight.

While the results of the October 21 federal election remained very much up in the air, it appeared Trudeau had skated clear of any great damage arising from his make-up fetish. His weak performance in the English language Leaders’ Debate on Monday has likely hit him harder. Still, as of Thanksgiving weekend Trudeau clearly remains a contender, with the polls see-sawing between predicting a minority government for him versus the same for the Conservatives.

And yet it’s not entirely fair to say there was no cost to this whole affair. It’s just that Trudeau isn’t the one paying the bill.

Unpacking the apologies

In order to tote up the actual damage, we need to consider three distinct themes amongst Trudeau’s many and varied public apologies. In his own words:

“Darkening your face, regardless of the context or the circumstances, is always unacceptable because of the racist history of blackface.”

“It was something that I didn’t think was racist at the time.”

“I have always acknowledged that I come from a place of privilege, but now I need to acknowledge that comes with a massive blind spot.”

First, we have an explicit acknowledgement what he did can never be considered acceptable; this as a precursor to saying sorry. Next, an observation that his actions came from a different time and thus require an understanding of context and changing moral standards, implying that it used to be, or at least once seemed, acceptable – which is already a long way from never. And finally, that his ignorance was the product of his own privileged upbringing – which is less a genuine apology than an evasion or excuse. We’ll look at each in turn.

Never acceptable

The origin of this scandal rests on the claim that photos of Trudeau dressed as Aladdin at an Arabian Nights-themed party in 2001 constitute an example of racist “brownface”. It seems a serious issue, with plenty of minority rights pleaders declaring themselves dutifully shocked and appalled. The media has also done its part. On its front page, the National Post called that first Aladdin yearbook snap a “Brownface Bombshell”.

But ask yourself this: prior to a few weeks ago, when had you even heard the term brownface? The word appeared only six times in the 10 years preceding the scandal in the Toronto Star, what we might consider the paper of record for progressive, politically-correct Canada. And most of these references occurred in the past two years. Brownface is in fact a newly-invented term whose apparent purpose is to allow some visible minority groups access to the same claims of historical injustice as blacks make in regards to blackface.

There is certainly an historical case to be made about blackface, to which Trudeau also availed himself at a high school talent show, where he sang Harry Belafonte’s well-known song Day-O, or The Banana Boat Song. In late September video also surfaced of Trudeau at perhaps his most disturbing: painted almost entirely black – seemingly including even a died tongue – bewigged, apparently with an object in his trousers, clowning wildly at a party following a whitewater rafting/kayaking event somewhere, sometime in the early 90s.

But brownface carries none of blackface’s fraught history. An Aladdin costume actually references the “Islamic Golden Age”, spanning about AD 800-1300, when the Arab world was far more powerful and often more erudite than Medieval Europe. If anything, that particular costume is a sign of respect. Ergo, dressing up in brownface shouldn’t even count as a scandal.

Nonetheless, Trudeau’s apology casts the widest possible net of shame. Brown and blackface are tarred, so to speak, with the same brush. And every critic appears quite willing to conflate brown and blackface simply to establish the horror of Trudeau’s action. But we should be very careful with sweeping declarations that face paint of any sort is a ghastly mistake. Despite Trudeau’s apologia, context does matter when donning another’s costume. While blackface can be crude, racially inspired or aimed at perpetuating inequality, simply declaring both forms off-limits at all times and forever poses a worrisome threat to personal and artistic freedoms.

No acting allowed: This post-apocalyptic production of Othello, to be played by a white woman, was shunned and ultimately cancelled. Edmonton’s Walterdale Theatre, 2017.

Keep in mind that the very notion of acting is a process by which an actor or actress imagines themselves to be someone else, and oftentimes dresses the part. William Shakespeare created an artistic world in which most of the roles were meant to be played by performers inhabiting another’s gender or race, with necessary costume and makeup assistance. This concept continues today, albeit imperfectly.

The 2018 season of the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario, for example, featured a surprisingly long list of unconventional casting choices. The title character in Julius Caesar was a woman, as was Satan in Paradise Lost and Prospero in The Tempest. The leads in both Coriolanus and The Music Man were played by black actors. Two of the Brontë Sisters were also black. And one set of male twins in The Comedy of Errors was played by a pair of actresses. All this was hailed as a great triumph of race- and gender-blind decision-making.

But while it’s true there’s nothing particularly male about the ambition of Julius Caesar, or Caucasian about the loveable rogue Harold Hill in The Music Man, such heterodox casting apparently only works one way. Twice in recent memory Canadian theatre companies have attempted to perform Othello with the lead played by a white woman rather than a black man; the results have been death threats, abject apologies and immediate cancellations.

1951’s Othello, with Orson Welles, one of the finest performances ever of this role.

This is sad and misplaced for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that Othello was a Moor, technically someone of mixed Arab and Berber descent – more brownface than black.  And among history’s very best performances of the character was Orson Welles in the award-winning 1951 movie of the same name – in which Welles didn’t even darken his face.

Trudeau’s apology-fuelled declaration that the use of face paint is always and everywhere unacceptable entrenches the obvious hypocrisy at work when white or male roles can be cast in all sorts of imaginative ways, but the same cannot be tolerated for visible minority roles. It’s also completely ahistorical. The list of legitimate blackface performances runs to hundreds of actors, from Fred Astaire to Elizabeth Taylor, and continuing to modern times. Here we include Robert Downey Jr.’s hilariously trenchant – and Academy Award-nominated − blackface performance in the 2008 comedy Tropic Thunder. Blanket bans on blackface will inevitably rob the world of many insightful and illuminating movie performances still to come.

End of an era: Robert Downey Jr.’s hilarious performance in Tropic Thunder was a hit with audiences and the Academy in 2008.

Sadly, plenty of other works of obvious artistic merit exploring race and racism would similarly be shouted into oblivion if released today – leaving us all the poorer for it. One good example is singer/songwriter Randy Newman’s provocative 1974 album Good Old Boys, which delivers a bracing but entirely relevant look at southern American racism. It seems impossible to imagine it could be released today without inciting riots. Another is folk singer Michelle Shocked’s masterpiece Arkansas Traveler, a white homage to black minstrelsy that includes a controversial insert portrait of her in blackface. “Why remind people of a painful, shameful past?” Shocked asks in her liner notes. “American music today is still being created from the rich traditions of blackface minstrelsy; like a forgotten history condemned forever to be repeated. Also, for many, putting on blackface was, and still is, an opportunity to express a soulfulness their own culture couldn’t provide.”

There is, of course, much more to minstrelsy that this brief discussion allows. It is widely regarded, and with ample evidence, as a perpetuation and rationalization of the non-violent submission of blacks to whites. This historical reality should not be ignored. But neither should we overlook Shocked’s important point about its many other artistic implications and meanings, however contentious those may be today. Understanding is gained through exploration and interpretation, not censorship and slavish adherence to political correctness.

Michelle Shocked, with and without blackface: a respectful tribute to the black experience, probably soon to be expunged from the world of art.

Manufactured outrage over Trudeau’s brownface eruption is equally likely to exacerbate the tiresome debate over cultural appropriation afflicting the rest of society. Recall the incident at Yale University in November 2015 when professors Erika and Nicolas Christakis were hounded from their administrative positions in the aftermath of an email Erika wrote to students at Yale’s Silliman College urging them to dress up however they like on Halloween. She’d been responding to student complaints over a formal letter from Yale administrators, penned in an almost grotesquely politically correct style, warning students to avoid Halloween costumes with “feathered headdresses, turbans, wearing ‘war paint’ or modifying skin tone or wearing blackface or redface,” along with numerous other cultural admonitions.

Trudeau’s apology further solidifies this depressing notion that no one can ever dress up in the costumes of another culture, and that doing so must always be considered a racist act. And not just at Halloween. In my hometown paper, the Waterloo Region Record, Trudeau’s costume scandal has prompted a curious spate of spontaneous confessionals in which residents admit to past experiences now deemed unacceptably racist. One woman’s letter to the editor revealed she had dressed up as a geisha girl many years ago at a costume party. Another said she’d had a summer job painting little concrete statues of black boys with fishing rods that were once popular lawn ornaments.

We can presumably expect more of this self-abasement as a result of the stridency of Trudeau’s apologies. But to what end? A society properly concerned with free and open speech should be loudly defending the right of individuals to wear whatever they want, at Halloween and during the rest of the year. Instead, we appear on the verge of establishing a new set of race-based sumptuary law, with Trudeau’s apologies making this situation worse.

A different time

A second form of damage inflicted by Trudeau’s apologies concerns his request for a free pass given his claim that “it was something I didn’t think was racist at the time.” Other Liberal MPs have expanded on this theme of temporal absolution. According to the CBC, black Liberal MP Greg Fergus said Trudeau “should be judged on his ‘great record’ of promoting equality and diversity, not on things that happened nearly 20 years in the past.” So either what Trudeau did back then wasn’t racist or, if that argument doesn’t hold water, “in the alternative” (as an opportunistic attorney might argue in court), Trudeau’s past transgressions were trifling.

No problem with blackface costumes in this largely black city: the Zulu parade at Mardi Gras in New Orleans, 2005.

The message here is that, either way, Trudeau should be judged on the totality of his accomplishments rather than one (or more) unfortunate decisions from his distant past, when things were different. That seems fair –  for the evidence overwhelmingly suggests things were different with respect to many behaviours and attitudes. Even the timing of the Yale controversy suggests that dressing up in all those different ways had been perfectly fine, or at least tolerable, prior to 2015 at one of America’s liberal bastions.

But such a balanced attitude is hardly consistent. Trudeau has never given his opponents or his predecessors the same retrospective courtesy he now expects. Here Hector-Louis Langevin and Judge Matthew Baillie Begbie, two titans from Canada’s past, stand in as our representative plaintiffs.

Langevin was a prominent Confederation-era federalist Tory MP from Quebec. For his significant role in bridging the gap between French and English Canada, he was once honoured with his name on the famous Langevin Block, across the street from Parliament Hill, which houses the Prime Minister’s Office. In 2017, however, Trudeau had Langevin’s name unceremoniously ripped from the building because he was “an individual associated with the residential school system.”

Trudeau was responding to the demands of several Indigenous leaders who falsely claimed Langevin was “an architect” of the schools based on sloppy historical research by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In fact Langevin was minister of public works under Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald; native policy was never his file. Besides, in the late 1800s the entire Ottawa elite − Liberals and Conservatives alike − thought residential schools offered a great benefit to Indigenous people. It was, quite literally, a different time. Nonetheless, for the sin of failing to live up to modern standards of behaviour, Trudeau declared Langevin persona non grata in Ottawa.

The same has gone for Begbie, the focus of a recent C2C Journal essay. Begbie was undoubtedly the most liberal-minded jurist in British Columbia during the mid-to-late 1800s. He spoke several native languages, was a strong advocate of minority rights and once even supported the concept of “Indian title” to the land. Last year, however, Trudeau permanently blackened the judge’s once-sterling reputation. In his eagerness to exonerate six Indigenous war chiefs Begbie sentenced to death for murdering 18 whites following a sneak attack in 1864, Trudeau turned Begbie into the villain of the story by calling his ruling an “injustice” against native people. (In fact, the death penalty was mandatory at the time for the crimes in question.)

In the name of reconciliation, statues and murals of Begbie throughout the province have been removed, including a striking life-size statue of him on horseback in the Law Society of British Columbia’s head office lobby. A single misconstrued ruling that conflicts with how Canadians wish to view their history today has been allowed to overshadow a remarkable life of accomplishments.

Begbie’s demise: the Law Society of British Columbia got rid of its statue of this giant of Canadian history.

This Liberal mobbing of Canadian politicians is not limited to historical figures. On the eve of the current election campaign, Liberal MP Ralph Goodale released a 14-year old video of Conservative leader Andrew Scheer expressing his support for the traditional concept of marriage between a man and a woman, implying that Scheer still does not accept same-sex marriage laws. Similar evidentiary claims have been made about abortion, despite Scheer’s repeated promise not to raise the issue in any future parliament if he becomes prime minister. The Liberals’ talking point: Scheer’s opinions and actions 14 years ago continue to define him regardless of what he says or does today. And they won’t let it go, with Trudeau further hammering Scheer on the subject during last week’s leaders’ debate.

Recognizing past standards of morality or the fullness of an individual’s career never cut any ice with Trudeau when he was rewriting Canadian history to demonstrate his sanctimonious progressivity, or when attacking his present-day political rivals. He declared them all unfit for polite society. Curiously, such standards do not seem to apply to the current prime minister.

Now that it’s his own behaviour under the microscope, Trudeau pleads that we should make allowances for differences in time and judge him on the broad sweep of his record rather than a small number of indiscretions or mistakes. 

The incredible blindness of privilege

Finally, we have Trudeau’s remarkable claim that these mistakes from the past arrive as a result of his own favoured upbringing. “I have always acknowledged that I come from a place of privilege, but now I need to acknowledge that comes with a massive blind spot,” goes his mea culpa in this regard.

It is a remarkable claim considering that Trudeau was raised in one of the most liberal/Liberal families in Canadian history. He is the product of a father who was prime minister for over 15 years and responsible for such Liberal totems as the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and a globe-trotting, disco-dancing, free-lovin’ mother. His was a family immersed in globalism and Big L Liberalism and in the process was exposed to a vast spectrum of cultures and viewpoints, including the U.S. civil rights movement. Justin’s younger brother Michel was even photographed in the arms of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro in 1976 when his parents arrived on an official visit. Yet now we discover such an upbringing left him blind to the casual racism of his own actions? It seems a complete inversion of reality.

For decades we’ve been told that society’s narrow-minded, insular segments are the true incubators and perpetuators of racism – roundly criticized as “bitter clingers” by Barack Obama, as a “basket of deplorables” by Hillary Clinton or simply as Trumpian populists by the full force of the globally-woke progressive army. Whatever the term, those who see the world in us-versus-them terms are habitually fingered as the real problem. The reason Quebec passed Bill 21 – another lamentable attempt to control individual freedom through restrictions on clothing choice that deserves wide condemnation − is to protect its particular tribal vision of society. In Bloc Québécois leader Yves-François Blanchet’s words at the close of the recent French-language leaders’ debate, it was to “opt for men and women who resemble you.”

There is no excusing prejudice or deliberate racism wherever it may occur. But it comes as quite a shock to discover it’s actually the cultured and metropolitan elite who’ve been most unaware of their own embedded flaws. This group, so eager to embrace a multiplicity of genders, cultures, pronouns, personal choices and ways of knowing, has apparently been steeped in ignorance and prejudice the entire time. And all this having been revealed, their immediate reaction is to request universal absolution for finally having the scales lifted from their eyes.  

A life of privilege has its benefits, you might say. Earning a free pass on past behaviour is one of them. Bald-faced hypocrisy is presumably another.   

Peter Shawn Taylor is an associate editor at C2C Journal. He lives in Waterloo, Ontario.

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