TORONTO—It is the season of moral gymnastics, here in Canada.
As the blackface and brownface scandals metabolized over the past week—nothing less than a boulder thrown in the ocean of the current election—some things were fairly rote: watching Justin Trudeau, one-time Rolling Stone cover boy and progressives’ pied piper, turn into a one-man conundrum.
Or as one observer contextualized it: “When I look at those photos, I honestly don't see malice or evil intent. I see ignorance. I see… a blowhard who craves attention. I see a giddy fool entombed inside a charmed life.”
Less straightforward, and a smidgen more nuanced, is the extent to which class and generation have played a part in the storm of varying responses, even within ethnic communities, like my own.
I experienced this whiplash first-hand when I—a long-time chronicler of the Canadian society set—waded into a party a few nights after the scandal broke and found the requisite tut-tutting and disappointment among the nice white people I talked to.
The mannerly shindig, for the Toronto Biennial of Art, was held near Toronto's lake shore; the people who had gathered were the well-meaning types who have at least tried the Beyond Meat burger and make sure to dutifully binge The Handmaid’s Tale.
Then I got into a taxi right afterwards and happened upon a driver—a man of Indian extraction, like myself—defending Trudeau.
The cabbie told me that the initial photo of Trudeau made up, long ago, as Aladdin at a party was “just a costume.” Far from thinking it was racist, he even went on to compare to the skin-coloring that happens every year during the annual Holi celebrations in Hindu culture, and then promptly segued to reminding me that Canada, under Trudeau, accepted more refugees than any other G8 country last year.
This response diverges from the outrage heard in many other quarters even after Trudeau's many, many mea culpas—“genuinely, blissfully clueless,” as per an editorial in The Globe and Mail; “racist, hypocritical, insensitive and wrong,” according to an op-ed written by Tejpal Singh Swatch.
An excusing response also clashes vehemently with what Paul Lawrie, an associate professor of history at the University of Winnipeg, raised when explaining that while the American use of blackface is rooted in slavery, which is not precisely the case in Canada, the Trudeau moment “shatters this longstanding sense we have [as] Canadians that we are immune to these racial tensions—that this is an American problem.”
And yet. The refrain I heard from the Indian cab driver was the very one I heard some days later—from my own dad! Speaking from his vantage point—working-class; quite devout; brought us all to Canada as refugees ourselves several decades ago—he told me pretty much the same thing.
Could this explain why that although Megyn Kelly left her NBC job because of a blackface-related controversy, Justin Trudeau has (so far) kept his.
Contrary to my reflex to recoil in distaste at the Trudeau revelations—like many in my demographic cohort, most of us understanding the minstrel roots of what we know now as blackface—my father informed me that the outrage, he thought, was itself elite!
I understood his point. A generation who had to fight for basic survival, and to be seen at all, may see these issues as esoteric at best.
All of it is complicated by the fact that for many immigrant families in Canada who arrived in the 1970s and 1980s—during the time when Justin’s father, Pierre, was prime minister—the name Trudeau itself is yoked with the ideal of multicultural inclusivity.
This generational divide intersects with a class divide that is “similar but sharper than the divide on Apu,” Canadian public intellectual Jeet Heer told me, comparing the controversy to the ongoing frisson surrounding a character on The Simpsons. He told me: “Apu never bothered me, but I learned problems with it from listening to younger Canadian and USA-born Desi.”
My own reaction to Trudeau has been filtered through a Rubik’s Cube of different experiences and identities. I am a person of color, sure. I am also someone who has had box seats to the Trudeau swirl (I covered his wedding). I spent time at Trinity College, at the University of Toronto, where I crossed paths with its Skull-and-Bones-like secret society dubbed Episkopon.
During my time there, the society was disassociated from the college amid charges of racism and homophobia (though it endures). The vibe I got from the nearly-two-decade-old pics of Trudeau was that very boys-will-be-boys, rich-kid buffoonery.
As a reader, and student of high society, the other thing that immediately swam into my consciousness was that the Aladdin image, in particular, seemed like a vignette right out of a la-di-da, empire-the-sun-never-sets-on party scene in Evelyn Waugh’s Bright Young Things. Retro-privilege to the extreme.
As something of a pop culture-tracker, and Real Housewives buff, it also struck me that Countess Luann de Lesseps was accused of doing blackface herself at a Halloween party shown on The Real Housewives of New York just two years ago.
The singing socialite said she had deigned to dress up like Diana Ross (as a homage!), and most of her co-stars just shrugged. Some viewers did too; many did not. A lot of us watched with a mix of shock and not-shock; these self-interested people seem genuinely clueless about cultural sensibilities. (During New York Fashion Week, Dorinda Medley and Sonja Morgan apologized over transphobic remarks they had made about a model.)
De Lesseps was never booted from the show, certainly, and the extent to which people online protested, those who are pro-countess turned the other cheek, and those who were not partial to her anyways simmered accordingly.
Similarly, Trudeau, and the reaction to him these days has turned out to be just be another Rorschach test to validate the way most people already think about Trudeau.
Those who are not predisposed are extra-salty, his Conservative foes even using it, it seems to me, to score political points with brazen hypocrisy. Those who already buy into the Liberal Party brand—even to the extent it is the best block against a Conservative Party opposition in what is a parliamentary system—are willing to justify what they need to.
And, so far, the polls reflect this: Canada, being as polarized as many Western democracies are these days, has seen the Liberals dip a little bit in the polls, but still leading in terms of the total number of projected seats.
One of the two men seen with the Canadian PM in the first viral-going photo—a Sikh-Canadian named Sunny Khurana—has actually come out to valiantly defend Trudeau. Tracked down by media, he said: “We did not feel that it was racist, but now when in the hindsight it is appearing racist he has already apologized, and the matter should end there.”
With a little less than a month to go before the election, when and if it does, depends on who you ask.