On Thursday afternoon, Justin Trudeau began an emergency press conference—his second in two days—by apologizing for having donned brown and blackface multiple times in the past. Then he opened the floor to questions from the media, only to repeatedly dodge a query about just how many times he had painted himself in the image of a black or brown person.
“I am wary of being definitive about this, because the recent pictures that came out, I had not remembered,” Trudeau finally admitted, leaving open the possibility that more offensive images might emerge. “[A]nd I think the question is, how could you not remember that? The fact is, I didn’t understand how hurtful this is to people who live with discrimination every single day.”
On the one hand, it is absolutely stunning and headline-worthy that Trudeau—the son of a Canadian prime minister now serving in that role himself—may have worn brown and blackface so often that he’s now iffy on how many times he did so. On the other, despite the media’s treatment of the entire Trudeau blackface controversy as a shocking betrayal of the Canadian prime minister’s pristine progressivism, it’s not particularly surprising that a white liberal did something racist (or, rather, enough racist things that he’s not sure he can remember them all).
The surprise comes from the faulty idea that white progressives—perhaps because they publicly tout “diversity and inclusion” and properly employ the phrase “white fragility”—are somehow racism-free. The Trudeau story proves what most people of color, and especially black folks, already know: that white liberals are plagued by the problems that are endemic to whiteness itself.
It should be clear by now that racism isn’t just a white conservative problem, despite how much more belligerent and vocal the white right is about its deep investment in racism. We’ve not only seen the Trudeau story before, but in the very recent past. Only half a year ago, Virginia’s Democrat governor Ralph Northam admitted he’d worn blackface in the 1980s; days after that admission, the state’s attorney general, Mark Herring, noted that he had once attended a college party dressed in blackface.
“Blackening up,” as it was once described by white minstrels, reduces black folks to caricatures and stereotypes, casting them in the absurd ways they’re so often portrayed in the white imagination. It renders whiteness more complex and fully human by contrast, and serves as a declaration of white supremacy. Neither Northam nor Herring may have ever held the liberal-golden-boy status of Trudeau, but in both instances, the use of blackface by so-called progressive white politicians revealed how institutionalized notions of anti-blackness are absorbed and replicated by white folks of every political stripe.
The privileged confines of whiteness—both his own and that of the very white circles he likely moved in—allowed Trudeau to repeatedly put on brown and blackface without concern about the effect of his decision on nonwhite people around him. The myopia of privilege, the most salient quality of whiteness, permitted Trudeau to overlook the emotional toll brown and blackface take on those who lack that same privilege.
That’s why a teenage Trudeau didn’t have to consider the pain of his fellow black and brown students, however few there were at his posh high school, when he decided to put on an afro wig and paint himself brown to perform the Jamaican folk song “Day-O” at a talent show. Similarly, whiteness allowed a fully grown, 30-year-old Trudeau to guiltlessly ignore the racist Orientalist tropes underlying brownface he applied for an Arabian Nights-themed party in 2001. (That the school where Trudeau was teaching thought it appropriate and not appropriative to have an Arabian Nights party is an essay for another day.) The luxury of not having to think beyond whiteness’s shortsightedness is a hallmark of whiteness itself.
Trudeau’s inability to recognize how dressing up like a fantastical stereotype of an entire race would be “hurtful… to people who live with discrimination every single day” is essentially an admission that he simply wasn’t listening—mostly because whiteness, which only hears what it wants to, meant he didn’t have to. Outcry over blackface wasn’t new in the early 2000s. In fact, black Canadian opposition to blackface dates back to the mid-19th century, as academic and writer Cheryl Thompson notes in a piece titled The Complicated History of Canadian Blackface:
In 1841, travelling American circuses came to Toronto for the first time and blackface came with them. According to University of Toronto theatre professor Stephen Johnson and historian Karolyn Smardz Frost, members of Toronto’s black community petitioned City Council annually until 1843 to prohibit these acts. But every year Council rejected their pleas to censor these blackface actors and racist depictions, among them Jim Crow ‘at home’ on the plantation.
Trudeau’s blackface incident came more than a century after black Canadians pleaded with officials to withdraw their support for the dehumanizing practice. In fact, the photo of Trudeau in brownface was snapped nearly a decade after Ted Danson’s blackface shenanigans at a Friars Club roast sparked outrage, and one year after the controversial use of blackface in Spike Lee’s 2000 film Bamboozled. Even Republicans in Missouri—hardly concerned about racism but aware of the usefulness of racism uncovered via opposition research—were leveraging old blackface photos of political foes to win elections by the late 1990s.
"I should have known better then,” Trudeau said Thursday.
It seems hard to believe that the adult son of a Canadian prime minister wouldn’t have known better than to put on brown and blackface. Instead, white racism did the work of silencing black and brown voices, postponing Trudeau’s reckoning with race, and his own complicity in racism, for decades.