Justin Trudeau wore brown and Blackface, not because he doesn’t understand the implications of it, but because he thought it was amusing.
By Gloria Oladipo
Justin Trudeau is the latest example of the truth that white supremacy doesn’t have a political party. Though he was once known as the latest foreign politician to charm the American left, news broke Wednesday that in 2001, while teaching at an elementary school, Trudeau wore brownface as part of a costume. Moreover, it was revealed that Trudeau had worn Blackface two additional times. For many American and Canadian liberals, this news has been incredibly shocking and devastating. It is hard for them to believe that someone with such a “progressive” political agenda could act in this way. How could someone who is so publicly pro-refugee treat race so pejoratively? How could someone willing to carry a person in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs do something so…racist?
Because he wanted to. Justin Trudeau wore brown and Blackface, not because he doesn’t understand the implications of it, but because he thought it was amusing. He didn’t wear it because he tends to get “more enthusiastic about costumes,” as he claimed. Trudeau wore Black and brownface multiple times because he wanted to and because he could. He wore it because he understands the racial violence he is committing and doesn’t care. Trudeau being slightly more progressive than the Trumps of the world doesn’t absolve him from the desire or ability to attack people of color, even if white liberals would prefer it that way.
Black and brownface are tools that have been historically used to mimic and mock people of color. Beginning in the 19th century, white actors would use Blackface to portray Black people as ignorant, lazy, and hypersexual. They would perform negative stereotypes of Black people for white audiences, exaggerating their features such as their skin pigmentation and lips. Blackface came from the belief that there was something humorous, something vulgar about Blackness, enough for the richness of our identity to be pared down into a costume. Brownface has a similar origin. To avoid hiring brown actors, white actors would have their skin painted brown, emboldening them to play racist stereotypes. In movies like “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “Dragon Seed,” and “A Mighty Heart,” white actors freely mimicked identities they did not have, embellishing accents and ethnic features to find the authenticity in positionalities they knew nothing about.
Black and brownface come from the same belief that, while whiteness is rich and complex, identities of color are easily replicable and only based around physical features defined by white people. Legacies of slavery, genocide, and colonialism that people of color have survived aren’t critical in understanding people of color; those instances of generational trauma come secondary to the cartoonish lips and painted skin white people reduce us to. Black and brownface allows white people to profit from and enjoy the aesthetics of Blackness and Brownness without having to acknowledge all the pain (caused by them and their ancestors) that has gone into our experiences.
That’s one of the privileges of white supremacy—the ability to take whole groups of people with a complex lived experience and decide what is “worthy” for the taking. Anyone practicing Black and brownface, either historically or today, operates from that logic. Black and brownface allows white people to use our “features”, but continually disrespect and relegate us to the margins. They get to “love” and “play with” the aesthetic but equally call into question our right to exist. Justin Trudeau “enthusiastically” wore Black and brownface amid Canada’s rising white supremacist organizing and xenophobia. He cannot remember the number of times he has dressed up as a person of color, while also allowing Canada to neglect the same indigenous communities it colonized and continues to harm. Justin Trudeau positions himself as an anti-Trump figure, proudly promising to treat minorities like human beings while dehumanizing them through caricatures rooted in a severely racist history. However, despite the good intentions he flaunts, despite his desire to convince the global north that he really is a good guy, Trudeau is a white man, one who will use the tools of white supremacy to do what he wants when he wants to.
If anything, Trudeau’s supposed “progressiveness” is an attempt to distract gullible white people (or rather apathetic white people) from noticing the ways in which he systematically harms communities of color, both in Canada and globally. Liberals look at Trudeau compared to more “overt” racists like Trump and scoff at accusations that Trudeau could be problematic; his “progressive” persona is purposeful, creating a distance between him and his violent policies and an even greater distance from ever being held accountable.
That’s why “niceness” or having a certain political inclination is a poor measure of the ability or penchant for someone to commit racist behavior. People who actively use white supremacy to their benefit aren’t concerned with niceness or meanness; they will take what they want from people of color, whom they never saw as human to begin with. After Trudeau had admitted to using brown and Blackface, many white Canadians tried to okay his behavior by comparing his apology to the non-apology of Canadien Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer who made homophobic comments in 2005. How many white Canadians are willing to forgive comments and actions that were not targeted at them, greenlighting the violence against people of color if it means keeping Trudeau in office? “Good-natured” people do racist things, not because they don’t know better, but because they don’t prioritize people of color. People who benefit from white supremacy can support universal healthcare and want to end Medicaid. They can be kind, public servants and mean and vindictive. They can publically be anti-racism proponents and Klan members.
Justin Trudeau knew better the first time. He knew better the second time and he sure as hell knew his behavior was problematic the third time, and any additional times after that he probably used brown and Blackface. His “progressive” agenda isn’t a reason to forgive him or be “grateful” that he’s at least not Trump. Trudeau should inspire us all to interrogate the white public servants in our lives further and remember that no white person is completely absolved from white supremacy, no matter how liberal they may seem.
Gloria Oladipo is a Black woman who is a sophomore at Cornell University and a permanent resident of Chicago, IL. She enjoys reading and writing on all things race, gender, mental health, and more. Follow her on Instagram at @glorels.