Trudeau photos force conversations about racism, history of blackface, experts say
Timeline created by McGill shows 30 documented blackface incidents from 2005-2016 in Canada
The photos of Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau in blackface and brownface are an opportunity for Canadians to talk about racism, the history of blackface and brownface and the impact discrimination has on minorities, experts say.
Trudeau has since apologized for the photos, calling them "embarrassing" and saying he's angry with himself for not recognizing the impact they could have. Blackface is not new in Canada, with documented examples of the practice dating back to the 1840's and continuing until present day.
"There are still many people who feel as if they have the right to do this and that they are entitled to do this. This is an example of both racial and class privilege." said Paul Lawrie, an associate professor of history at the University of Winnipeg.
The first photo published by Time magazine shows Trudeau with his face painted brown, dressed as Aladdin for an Arabian Nights-themed gala during his time as a teacher at West Point Grey Academy in Vancouver.
One of the other images is from Trudeau's time in high school, and a video obtained by Global News shows Trudeau in blackface dancing.
When asked at a campaign event in Winnipeg on Thursday, his first comments in a large public setting, Trudeau said he did not know how many times he had put on blackface or brownface.
If you take a look at social media, you'll see people who are confused at the prospect of Trudeau colouring his face being dubbed as racist. The online comments showcase ignorance and a lack of understanding of the situation, according to Lawrie.
"These present events reveal that it still isn't seen as culturally insensitive; 2001 is hardly a long time ago in historical terms," he said.
But you don't need to go back to 2001 to show how recent blackface is in Canada. In 2017, McGill University published a timeline of Canadian blackface incidents, a study which documents at least 30 instances from 2005 to 2016.
In 2010, two hockey fans painted their faces black to cheer on professional hockey player P.K. Subban when he was still playing in the American Hockey League.
Only one incident on the list is political, when in 2013 a provincial MLA in Nova Scotia, Joachim Stroink, talked about a photo he had tweeted of himself sitting in the lap of a blackface Christmas character.
"The origins for these are all performances, and people generally tend to see performative nature — whether it's on stage or whether it's at a party or whether it's at a hockey game — they seem to see that as being something that's all in good fun," said Lawrie.
Origins of blackface
The origins of blackface date back to the mid-19th century when white performers would darken their skin using shoe polish or the burnt end of a cork to imitate African-American slaves, Lawrie said.
"[They would do] stereotypical dances and voices and productions and … black minstrel became one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the United States," Lawrie said.
Slave owners were one of the first groups to adopt the practice in an attempt to ridicule their African-American slaves as barbaric and uncultured.
While it remained popular throughout the 19th century, it wasn't until the 1920s when the practice really took off thanks to the music industry and singer Al Jolson, who was known as one of the godfathers of the movement, according to Lawrie.
"Jolson … appears in blackface and is a blockbuster across North America and really fuels this craze for blackface," he said.
White actors were constantly cast over black actors in leading roles to showcase the behaviour of black men as often brooding and thuggish in nature on the big screen, he said.
I think there is still a love affair, perhaps not as explicit, but there is still a love affair with blackface, and it's a close cousin of brownface.- Paul Lawrie, associate professor of history at University of Winnipeg
In recent years, Robert Downey Jr., best known for his role in Iron Man, played the character of a blackface actor in the film Tropic Thunder released in 2008. Following his role, Downey was rewarded by being cast in multiple blockbuster films and was one of the leads of The Avengers' franchise.
In 2012, Billy Crystal performed a skit on Saturday Night Live in blackface depicting black icon Sammy Davis Jr. as millions watched on their televisions.
When recounting these incidents of Downey, Crystal and Trudeau, Lawrie says the desire to paint one's face is waning, but still alive.
"I think there is still a love affair, perhaps not as explicit, but there is still a love affair with blackface, and it's a close cousin of brownface," he said.
While Trudeau donned both brown and blackface, the two are not equal — one with deep roots in slavery and the other, a fetish for golden skin, Lawrie said.
"Both are about cultural appropriation. The history of blackface has much more been about the degradation and the dehumanization of black people, their presumed inferiority, the reduction of them to cartoon characters," he said.
"Brownface, while sharing many of those same attributes, also is really based on, again, a really long fascination or American fascination with the exotic."
While the American use of blackface is rooted in slavery, the same cannot be said for Canada, and Trudeau's blunder has forced Canadians to have a real discussion about racism, Lawrie said.
"It shatters this longstanding sense we have it's Canadians that we are immune to these racial tensions — that this is an American problem," he said.
The Trudeau photos have opened an avenue for discussion and for real change, notes Rehman Abdulrehman, director of Clinic Psychology Manitoba, a private practice.
"People of colour don't often feel privileged or entitled enough to speak up about their experiences. I think when they do speak up about their experiences it's often diminished," he said.
"This is an opportunity for us to discuss how much of an impact discrimination has on Canadians and how present it still is in today's society."
Effects on minorities
Given Trudeau's desire to want to be a champion of diversity and for minorities, many people of colour seeing the photos could be traumatized by their racist nature, said Abdulrehman.
"[They're either feeling] absolute dread, and a reminder and a trigger, to hold traumas that they may have experienced," said Abdulrehman.
"The second [feeling] is just one of complete malaise, [that] people … have faced so much discrimination. This seems like a small drop in the ocean."
For minorities, the discussion of racism is now the talking point of the Canadian election, and while many may feel racism is non-existent in Canada, Abdulrehman said this shows that is far from the truth.
Overall, across the board, there is a sense of complacency about the discrimination that many Canadians experience, and I think that's what we need to be discussing as a political platform issue.- Rehman Abdulrehman, director of Clinic Psychology Manitoba
"Overall, across the board, there is a sense of complacency about the discrimination that many Canadians experience, and I think that's what we need to be discussing as a political platform issue," he said.
While Trudeau has apologized, Abdulrehman said there needs to be more than just an apology.
"I think that was a really good step in the right direction, but it can't be all of it. If it is the only thing that he does, then we have an incomplete process. Leaders need to be able to follow up on those words, and they need to put their money where their mouth is," he said.
When CBC News asked Trudeau at the news conference in Winnipeg about what changes he would enact, he listed off what he has done, but did not commit to anything saying that "more needs to be done."
- An earlier version of this story referred to Rehman Abdulrehman as the director of Clinical Psychology of Manitoba. In fact, he is the director of Clinic Psychology Manitoba, a private practice.Sep 20, 2019 6:30 PM CT