He was supposed to be dressed as Nick Fury in The Avengers. He had on the full costume, complete with a long, black-leather trench and a matching eyepatch. His buddies, Captain America and Iron Man, were there too. I can’t remember what other costumes made up the superhero group costume, but I will never forget that the white man masquerading as Samuel L. Jackson’s Fury was in blackface.
As soon as he walked in, I looked around, waiting for someone’s face to mirror my frustration and rage, but no one’s face looked like mine. I was the only Black person at this Halloween party in St. John’s, Newfoundland, in 2012. It’s lonely to be the only Black person in the room; it’s even lonelier to be the only one who recognizes when someone is blatantly mocking your existence in front of you.
The white dude in blackface didn’t see it like that. When I confronted him, he justified the costume with his ignorance. He said he didn’t know better. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau echoed the statement Wednesday night when he apologized for two instances of blackface he engaged in — one in 2001 when he was a teacher at a Vancouver private school and one in high school for a performance of Harry Belafonte’s “Day O.” Another video has since surfaced of Trudeau in blackface in the early ’90s, with less context. Of the 2001 instance, Trudeau said, “It was something that I didn’t think was racist at the time, but now I recognize, it was something racist to do.” He added: “I’ve always — and you’ll know this — been more enthusiastic about costumes than is sometimes appropriate.” Sure, that’s one way to justify that infamous trip to India.
Trudeau and Blackface Nick Fury are products of the same system of privilege and white supremacy our country pretends it is exempt from. That’s why, when news broke that Trudeau attended that “Arabian Nights” themed-party in Vancouver in 2001 wearing a turban and “brownface” (a term many writers of colour have argued is interchangeable with blackface), I wasn’t surprised. Trudeau is an able-bodied, straight, rich white man who was born into fame and privilege. Of course, he has a history of engaging in racist behaviour. It’s behaviour I know well solely from being a Black woman in Canada consistently surrounded by white people. Trudeau is the poster child of the institutionalized racism this country was built on. And now as prime minister, he is the face of it. These revelations just prove having a racist leader who upholds white supremacy in his personal life — and consciously or not, also in his politics — is not just an American problem. They prove that the whole damn system is racist, and it always has been. See: the history of blackface in Canada.
White people don’t like being called a racist. Many times, this accusation shuts down a conversation. Somehow, calling someone a racist is worse than being a racist. But we can’t change what we don’t name. Some people are using this blackface/brownface controversy to fight about whether Trudeau is a racist or not. They’re going to point to Trudeau’s record of standing up for injustice and his party’s pledges of anti-racism and assumed commitment to diversity. They are going to say that Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer is the real racist and that we should be focusing on his ties to white supremacists and xenophobic views. They’re going to say that at least Trudeau is the lesser of two evils. They’re right. The Liberal Party has a better record for keeping the interests of marginalized groups in mind than the Conservatives. The Liberals talk about multiculturalism a lot; they talk a big game. But Black and Brown people are still disproportionately incarcerated and face harsher sentences than white people in this country. Indigenous women are still victims of genocide in this country. Professional spaces are still overwhelmingly white and male. Marginalized groups are still up against discrimination in their schools, their jobs, their hospitals, and in their everyday lives. That has a ripple effect. As activist Ritika Goel tweeted, “political spaces continue to be disproportionately white and male, thereby shaping policies impacting the lives of racialized people through privileged lenses that don’t actually reflect our country.”
If last night’s news left you feeling frustrated over which problematic white man to vote for, welcome to being a person of colour in Canada.
Trudeau says he didn’t know better in 2001, but he knows better now. Does he? As a man in his position with his upbringing, can he ever really know better or do better? He’s going to uphold a racist system because he is the system. As a Black person voting in this country, feelings of disappointment and disillusionment with my political options are not new. If last night’s news left you feeling frustrated over which problematic white man to vote for, welcome to being a person of colour in Canada. The only difference is that this year, there is a non-white option.
The Trudeau news comes days after a CTV story about NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh that asks voters whether “Canada is ready for a PM with a turban.” The question is offensive, and the answers are even worse. A voter named Betty said, “we are not familiar to have a guy like that with a position like that,”She went on: “If he would take [his turban] off, and be normal like us, I would vote right away because I am a (New Democrat) myself.”
Singh, who gave an emotional statement about the Trudeau photos, is the first non-white person to lead a major national political party and run for Prime Minister of Canada, but it’s voters like Betty who perpetuate the idea that he has no chance of winning. It doesn’t help that the NDP party seems to be an unorganized mess and are losing MPs — and ground in this election — every day. The thinking goes like this: If the NDP (and the Green Party) has no shot, the Liberals are our only option for people who don’t want to vote for a party with openly homophobic and racist members.
Since the blackface photos surfaced, I’ve stuck to this talking point: If I have to, I will still vote for Justin Trudeau. He may not deserve my vote, but for the sake of self-preservation, he’ll get it. While the Conservative party is the kind of racism that wants people of colour to sit at the back of the bus, Liberals are the kind who say they would have voted for Barack Obama if they could have, while still clutching their purses whenever a Black man walks by them on the sidewalk. That’s Canada for you. To quote journalist and producer Amil Niazi, “This election race is a perfect summation of Canadian values: thinking you’re stuck between choosing between two racists because the other options are a woman and a Brown guy.”
If Trudeau were to step down, these problems would still exist. Debating blackface, brownface, or what was or was not racist in 2001 (it all was and still is) dilutes the bigger and more important conversation about the face of power in this country. Trudeau’s veneer as the progressive, feminist, pro-diversity PM has crumbled. He’s not a hero; he’s just a dude in blackface.