Montreal·Q&A

'You can't take a joke': What needs to stop for hurtful incidents like blackface to stay in the past

Can someone not be racist and still do racist things? The former director of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation, Myrna Lashley, says the real question is, "Where do we go from here?"   

Myrna Lashley, former director of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation, on Justin Trudeau's blackface photos

Myrna Lashley told CBC Montreal's Daybreak that she has met Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and knows him to not be racist. But what he did by dressing in blackface, she said, was racist. (Naskademini)

Can someone not be racist and still do racist things?

Does loudly condemning a single act of racism outweigh day-to-day silence?

These are some of the many questions Canadians are asking themselves after old photos of Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau in blackface surfaced earlier this week.

The former director of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation, Myrna Lashley, says the real question is, "Where do we go from here?"   

"People hear racist jokes all the time. How many times do people stand up and say: 'Don't tell me that joke,' — or walk away?" Lashley said.

Lashley, who teaches in McGill University's psychiatry department, has a long history of involvement in intercultural relations in Quebec and chairs the cross-cultural roundtable on security at the École Nationale de Police du Québec.

She said it hurt her to see the pictures of Trudeau in blackface, and that even in the 1990s, when one of the photos was taken, blackface was not acceptable.

Lashley spoke to CBC Montreal's Daybreak about the photos — and where the conversation about race should go next.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What do you think of the blackface photos of Trudeau?

I hate them.

It was a stupid thing to do, and it hurt a lot of people. I know the man. I met him — he's not a racist. He's trying to bring people together.

What I'm concerned about is where we go from here.

When people dress this way, they are saying, "Some people aren't part of the conversation."

If we're going to spend time looking at what he did, look at what other people did: there were other people there. They thought it was OK.

People laugh at these jokes, even if they are directed against them.

If they don't, people will say, "What's wrong with you? You have a chip on your shoulder."

This image was part of an April 2001 newsletter from the West Point Grey Academy. (West Point Grey Academy)

People are defending Trudeau and the hashtag #IStandWithJustin trended on Twitter. What do you think of that response?

What's annoying me is while he's standing there and taking responsibility, people in the audience are saying he doesn't need to apologize.

He's trying to step up and say, "My privilege blinded me."

He's telling people, "I hurt people."

Not only racist people can do racist things. The act itself was racist.

This was part of the zeitgeist. This was accepted behaviour.

I've seen this in the past few years in Quebec, people who've done blackface. It's not OK.

Jagmeet Singh is correct. This hurt people. This hurt people to their very core.

How can we make sure hurtful incidents like this don't keep happening?

People were quiet before because we were afraid to speak out. We had no allies.

Here's the reasoning that people use to justify it: "If I can say these things and you don't get upset, you're a good person. If you do get upset, then you're making me uncomfortable, and that's not fair."

"I should never be put in a position where I have to consider the pain I'm causing because I'm just having a good time."

"You can't take a joke."

That's the mentality that has to change.

With files from CBC Montreal's Daybreak

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