Opinion

Why did it take a clueless white dude in brownface to get us to talk about race in this election?

Of course what Trudeau did was racist, hypocritical, insensitive and wrong. But when considering the problem of racism in this country, the clueless blundering of privileged white men is a low-stakes problem.

Politicians and journalists will attend our parades and knock on our doors when their vote or story at stake

Of course what Trudeau did was racist, hypocritical, insensitive and wrong. But when considering the problem of racism in this country, the clueless blundering of privileged white men is a low-stakes problem. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

The first thing I noticed about the picture was the care with which the makeup was applied. The coverage was even and smooth — no blank spots. This was no slapdash application of drugstore store Halloween makeup; it had the look of professionalism, care and, most of all, time. 

Whether he did it himself or had someone else apply it, Justin Trudeau's brownface in that 2001 photograph must have taken forever to put on. 

One would think that, in all that time, the then-29-year-old teacher would've had a second thought or a pang of doubt. But as the Liberal leader told reporters last week — after that photograph and two more of occasions when Trudeau darkened his skin as a costume were published — he didn't realise at the time that the act was racist. It would take until he became an MP, according to his telling, to recognize that brownface and blackface was wrong. 

How did we get here? Like anyone, I was struck by the images. The sheer commitment and the utter lack of decent self-criticism evident in Trudeau's costume was truly a spectacle. 

But as a turbaned Sikh man who grew up in Canada, and who has seen, time and again, his culture and language simplified into the loud, brash notes of empty stereotypes, I was hardly surprised: You mean to tell me Justin Trudeau, the scion of Laurentian elites, schooled in tony brick buildings, happily, listlessly privileged, didn't think twice before making himself into a mocking caricature of a brown person? That he did so without a sliver of worry or doubt? 

I'd be surprised if he hadn't.

Pundit reactions

What was even less surprising is how the country reacted. The analysts and journalists were in vapours about what this could mean for the election. They assessed damages, traded reactions and reported dutifully as each morsel of detail trickled out. 

Commentators on TV and Twitter all safely concluded that brownface is a bad thing. Then they quickly moved on to what it meant for his election chances. The partisans then had their say, amplifying and dampening the photographs as required by their agenda.

As usual, the pundits and political leaders only sprang into action to discuss racism in the context of the campaign when confronted by what writer Ta-Nehesi Coates calls "oafish" racism. People suddenly have something to say when faced with a crude and hurtful stereotype — they'll readily shake their heads and wag their fingers at cartoonish transgressions. It's easy to make an issue of Canada's 23rd prime minister taking pictures in brownface.

That these obvious points are belaboured and agonized over by political leaders and the somber punditry class is absolutely infuriating to watch. Of course what Trudeau did was racist, hypocritical, insensitive and wrong. But let's be rest assured, when considering the problem of racism in this country, the clueless blundering of privileged white men is a low-stakes problem.

Almost two weeks into the election, the only racism maelstrom that has actually dominated our headlines is a zany white dude in brownface. (Time.com)

Here are some high-stakes problems: back in June, the government of Quebec passed Bill 21, a law that bans people who wear religious garb from working in positions of authority in the public sector. 

The provincial government claims it affirms the Quebecois people's secular nature. In practice, it is discrimination against people in turbans, hijabs, kippahs and other religious symbols. Yet federal leaders have offered little more than craven platitudes, and only when pressed.

Here's another: two candidates from two federal parties had to step down over anti-Muslim social media posts. But instead of discussing burgeoning white supremacy, the discussion centred on how candidates are vetted.

Indeed, almost two weeks into the election, the only racism maelstrom that has actually dominated our headlines is a zany white dude in brownface. 

In the end, the problem isn't oafish outbursts by a politician. The bigotry that needs to be talked about in this campaign and in this country is the one that reduces people of colour, Indigenous people, women, and other marginalized groups into trinkets — shiny baubles that, at best, gesture toward empathy, but are the result of selfish, cold calculation.

Politicians and journalists will attend our parades and knock on our doors when there is a vote to be had or a facile story to be told. But when we need them, when discrimination moves beyond shocking headline materials, when people are actually told they can't get jobs because of the way they look, they fade away. 

If only the country could channel the careful focus of an ignorant 29-year-old costume-enthusiast, committed to perfecting his brownface for a private school dance party, and apply it to issues that matter. Imagine what this campaign could be.


This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read our FAQ.

About the Author

Tejpal Singh Swatch lives and works as an accountant in Edmonton. He is working on a memoir of growing up a Sikh in Canada during the age of the Air India bombing, gangland shootings and a community coming into its own.

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