I wrote this essay, in which I get both political and a bit personal, for The Guardian.
Recently surfaced photos of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in brownface while at an ‘Arabian Nights’ party in 2001 are disturbing on a number of levels. First, if you’ll allow me to point out the obvious, Trudeau is the only person in makeup! The other partygoers who are pictured are barely costumed, yet Trudeau looks like he just walked out of an old Tintin comic book as the stereotypical Arab villain.
It doesn’t end there. The makeup that Trudeau is wearing in the photos is not limited to his face but is liberally applied across his breastbone and completely covers his hands. Imagine how much thought and action (and make up!) must have gone into planning and painting young Justin Trudeau brown.
Third, Justin Trudeau wasn’t young! He was 29-years-old at the time of this party. Like the rest of us mortals (his image in the US notwithstanding), Trudeau is bound to the rules of space and time, which means that, when this party was thrown, Trudeau was not acting in some minstrel show in the American south in 1901. On the contrary, he was 29 years-old, in Vancouver, and living in the year 2001. By 2001, minstrelsy was already recognized as socially unacceptable behavior.
Fourth, Justin Trudeau seems to have a blackface/brownface problem, with earlier examples now coming to light. The now world-famous and debonair Canadian politician has, on at least two occasions, been recorded in blackface, surely disappointing legions of his fans across the globe. Just think about it. While so people in the US seem ready to believe that Melania or Ivanka (or both) are ready to ditch Trump and hitch a universal-health-care ride to Trudeau-land due to the young leader’s good looks and suave manners, Trudeau seems to want to play out some deep-level desire to leave his whiteness behind and become…an Arab.
Justin Trudeau wants to be me.
I’m joking, of course, to make a point. I doubt Trudeau wants to be an Arab man or a black man or an Indian man, though he has dressed up as all three. But what such racial pantomimes do is exaggerate the distance between white people and non-white people for the amusement of the dominant culture. Nothing underlines whiteness more than a white person temporarily and exaggeratedly leaving whiteness behind and acting like a person of some other race.
Why? Because racial pantomimes are not really about costumes or humor but are about power, the power to degrade the people of another race, the power to ridicule the manners of another ethnicity, and the power to make racism look like it’s all just good fun.
Nor is this kind of racism limited to the politicians in Canada. I grew up in Canada (I hold both American and Canadian citizenship) and what I see in these photos feels personal. I remember very clearly the bullying and taunts that the few non-white kids, myself included, routinely faced in school. As a Muslim kid, I was forced to leave my elementary school classroom and wait in the hall while the Lord’s Prayer was read aloud over the school speakers. As a brown kid, I was constantly told by other kids that I was dirty because my knees and elbows were a darker color than the rest of my skin. In my high-school gym’s locker room, I was regularly ridiculed and beaten because I was a “Paki,” and any brown kid in Canada when I was growing up was pejoratively called a “Paki.” My feeble response at the time was to tell my attackers: “I’m not from Pakistan.” That would sometimes elicit a pause. Then a chuckle. Then the beating would continue.
Now, it’s true that things have improved in Canada since I was growing up in the 1970s and 80s, but it’s also true that Canadians still aren’t all that good at confronting their own racisms. This is partly because the American behemoth to the south had for a long time convinced many Canadians that racism was limited to the anti-black bigotry of the American variety. Today, many Americans (and a few Canadians) still believe the myth of a non-racist Canada. But Canadian racism is real, and it’s still as pernicious, systemic and psychologically damaging as any other. Indigenous communities in particular are still forced to battle Canadian racism in the most profound ways conceivable. And until there is a real movement to confront and eliminate it in all of its varieties, racism will live on in Canada and these incidents and injustices will keep occurring.
Read the rest here.