Justin Trudeau's blackface shows that being progressive doesn't exempt you from racism

People can do racist things but believe they’re not racist in part from conditioning that says burning crosses and lynchings are racist but little else is.
Image: Justin Trudeau
Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau listens to a question at a campaign rally in Saskatchewan on Thursday.Sean Kilpatrick / Canadian Press via AP
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By Ola Ojewumi, founder of Project ASCEND

Last month, policy analyst Samuel Sinyangwe noted that America has more governors who’ve worn blackface than black governors, a statistic that PolitiFact then confirmed. This is why no one should be surprised that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau donned brownface as a teacher attending a private school gala in 2001 and wore blackface at least twice before that.

When images from the party first emerged, fans and even critics who respected Trudeau were shocked that this beloved politician could do something so offensive. For many years, Trudeau has been hailed as a young, vibrant world leader who would affect social change beyond Canada. He championed gender equality, his policies welcomed immigrants and refugees, and he wasn’t afraid to speak out against President Donald Trump’s racist rhetoric.

Absolutely none of this means Trudeau himself can’t be racist.

White liberalism will likely shape the narrative in Trudeau’s favor using these tried-and-true excuses: the passage of time, his young age and feigned ignorance.

Contrary to popular belief, progressivism doesn't exempt one from being racist. Arguably, white liberal racism is worse than conservative racism. If you ask people of color, you’re likely to hear that we'd rather have people stand by their racism publicly as opposed to trying to convince us that they’re colorblind while being racist privately.

The difference between white liberals and white conservatives is that when conservatives are racist, they are upfront, honest and unapologetic about it. Politicians like Trump and Iowa Rep. Steve King will say explicitly positive things about white nationalism and white supremacy. Alternatively, white liberal racism is covert, casual and harder to detect.

I've worked in politics and been privy to white liberal racism. I first experienced it when I was a teenager working on a local political campaign when an elected official mocked African American Vernacular English. Months later, I called him out on his racism. He laughed and said he wasn't racist; after all, he employed a majority black and female staff in one of the wealthiest black areas in the country. In his eyes, he could never be racist based on that fact alone.

Obtained by TIME

As the Trudeau controversy unfolds in the mainstream media, expect to see an unsettling but relentless defense of Trudeau. In the coming days, white liberalism will likely shape the narrative in Trudeau’s favor using these tried-and-true excuses: the passage of time, his young age and feigned ignorance.

You will probably see cable news pundits repeat these standard talking points: He did this 18 years ago. What's the big deal? He was 29 years old, and he's not the same person at 47. How is it racist? It was just a costume. It doesn't show what's in his heart. He didn't know any better, but now he does. It was a different time back then. Look at the context. There are bigger forms of racism to focus on, and this is a distraction!

But it’s wrong to say this issue is a distraction, because past racist acts may be reflective of how Trudeau views race. If he could do something so racist multiple times, how can we know he doesn’t still hold racist beliefs? This may be a window into how Trudeau approaches policymaking. The prime minister’s agenda continues to harm Canada’s indigenous population: His Kinder Morgan decision showed that he values the interests of big oil companies over the health and well-being of Native Canadians.

What’s even more disturbing is Trudeau’s apology, in which he expressed ignorance. He claimed he didn’t know it was racist. But in 2001, I doubt that many people didn’t know that it was. Indeed, dressing up this way — which conjures the dehumanizing minstrel shows of decades past — is much more than a costume; it recalls a painful history that has been ignored for too long.

White people can do explicitly racist things and still believe they’re not racist in part from conditioning that teaches racism is synonymous with white hoods, burning crosses and lynchings but often little more, and for people of color to think otherwise is a misunderstanding or overreaction.

That we tend to live in segregated communities exacerbates the problem. Blackface is an element of white culture that goes unseen when neighborhoods are racially separated. When you rarely interact with people of color, you don’t have to be nearly as cautious about being called out about racism. The golden rule is: If you wouldn't do or say something if a black person was within earshot or near you, it's probably racist. That’s how to know that someone is aware an act is racist and doesn’t care enough not to do it.

This also creates a culture of privilege where these transgressions are rarely punished adequately. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, was caught wearing blackface, and he's still in office. After Paula Deen’s N-word controversy, her restaurant was flooded with white supporters. Justin Bieber is still selling out concerts and producing hit records despite his own N-word controversy.

Yet there are tens of thousands of people of color sitting in prisons for nonviolent crimes they committed 18 years ago. If you're black, you must be held accountable for your actions regardless of your age or how many years ago it was; for white progressives such as Trudeau, age and time are a defense for misbehavior.

Trudeau could have said that he knew what he did was wrong but did it anyway because he was cloaked in white privilege; that up until this point, that privilege insulated him from facing consequences for these types of actions; that what he did was racist, and he was going to use this time to challenge himself to be better. Such honesty would have been appreciated by people of color. And it could challenge other white liberals to make it their mission not to prove that they're not racist, but to see how they actually are. That would be progress. Denial is not.