Justin Trudeau in blackface: Here’s what teens think

Story by CBC Kids News • Published 2019-09-20 11:46

Liberal leader says sorry

Justin Trudeau is getting a lot of attention right now, and it’s not the kind of attention he wants during an election campaign.

Three photos and a video of the federal Liberal leader surfaced in the news this week.

The images show him dressed in costumes with brownface and blackface makeup, which means he painted his body to look like a person of colour.

“I think it’s really inappropriate… I think it was a really awful thing to do.” - Ella Haynes, age 14

Two of the photos were taken in 2001, when he was 29 years old, at an Arabian Nights-themed party where he was dressed up as Aladdin.

A man with his face painted brown in an Aladdin costumes poses with his arms around 2 Sikh men

This second image of Trudeau in brownface was part of an April 2001 newsletter from the West Point Grey Academy. (Newsletter of West Point Grey Academy)

Trudeau was a teacher at the time at West Point Grey Academy, a private high school in Vancouver.

“I regret it deeply,” Trudeau said at a news conference on his plane after the photos were published in Time magazine.

“It’s something I shouldn’t have done, many years ago, and I recognize that I shouldn’t have done it.”

A man in a suit walks to the back of a plane.

Trudeau walks toward reporters on his campaign plane in Halifax to comment on the photos of him dressed in brownface. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Trudeau also admitted that he had dressed up in blackface in high school for a talent show several years earlier.

In Grade 12, he sang Day-O, a traditional Jamaican folk song made popular in 1959 by African-American singer Harry Belafonte.

“I didn’t consider it a racist action at the time. But now I know better,” he said aboard his campaign plane.

“I should have known better but I didn’t and I am really sorry.”

A teen in a blazer speaking into a microphone with black facepaint.

Trudeau wore black makeup when he performed at his high school in Montreal. A video of the event has also surfaced. (CBC)

The Liberal leader who champions diversity and fighting racism said he was “disappointed” and “pissed off” at himself for what he called a “dumb mistake.”

“Darkening your face, regardless of the context and circumstances, is always unacceptable, because of the racist history of blackface,” Trudeau said Thursday from Winnipeg.

What is blackface and why is it inappropriate?

White people dressed up in this way for many years, including in Hollywood.

In the 1800s, theatre actors painted their faces black so they could perform as if they were black people.

An actor with black face paint looks in the mirror

American film star Al Jolson used to dress up in blackface makeup. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Over time, it has become seen as a way to denigrate and dehumanize black people, said Rinaldo Walcott, a professor and director of the Women and Gender Studies Institute at the University of Toronto.

People dressed in blackface “to ridicule black people,” Philip Howard, a professor of integrated studies in education at McGill University, wrote in a 2018 article when a photo of rapper Drake in blackface surfaced.

Kids’ reaction is mixed

Ella Tsotsos, 14, is from Pickering, Ont., and her heritage is Indian, Portuguese and Greek.

In 2016, she met Trudeau at an event in Scarborough, Ont., and she stands by him.

“I don't think he should be feeling sorry for it because you know I feel like I've met him and … he was very nice towards me,” she said.

A teen and a man pose for a selfie

Ella Tsotsos met Trudeau in 2016 and she doesn’t think the Liberal leader should be discredited because of what happened a long time ago. (Ella Tsotsos)

I find it rather suspicious that that was brought up now when he is seeking to be re-elected,” she added.

CBC Kids News also asked some teens in Halifax what they thought.

Ella Haynes, 14, said Trudeau should have known better.

“I think it’s really inappropriate, especially since he has a really big influence,” she said. “I don’t think a white person  — or anyone — should do anything like that. I think it was a really awful thing to do.”

Eliana Massan, 17, said that when those pictures were taken, some people weren’t as educated about the harm in dressing in blackface.

“Personally I don’t think it’s that big of a deal,” she told CBC Kids News. “I feel like he’s taking responsibility for what he did so I feel like it is a good thing that he knows what he did [was] wrong and he’s trying to make a difference about it.”

Eliana Massan, 17, said that times have changed since Trudeau dressed up in blackface. (Sabrina Fabian/CBC)

As a Lebanese-Canadian, she said people sometimes get confused about her race and religion, but she doesn’t hold it against them if they didn’t mean any harm.

“If someone is going to make me feel like they’re putting me down, then I will speak up about it, but sometimes people just don’t know,” she said.

Emtenan Al-Taher, 14, is Libyan and wears a hijab. She said that Trudeau has done a lot to “help out people of colour.”

“What he did was wrong, don’t get me wrong,” she said. “But I don’t think it was his intention to like, harm people and hurt their feelings about it.”

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