Cross Country Checkup

Reaction to Trudeau blackface photos shows the black experience is 'an unknown thing to most,' prof says

Ryerson University assistant professor Cheryl Thompson has traced the roots of black and brownface performances in Canada back to the 1840s.

'In my lifetime, I have been in spaces where white people have showed up in blackface,' Cheryl Thompson says

Cheryl Thompson is an assistant professor at Ryerson University and the author of Beauty in a Box: Detangling the Roots of Canada’s Black Beauty Culture. (Submitted by Calla Evans)
Listen9:37

Cheryl Thompson was unsurprised to see past photos of Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau in blackface. 

"The problem in our country, like around the world, is that the fact of blackness is like an unknown thing to most people," the Ryerson University assistant professor, who has traced the roots of black and brownface performances in Canada, told Cross Country Checkup host Duncan McCue.

On Sunday, Checkup listeners responded to recently resurfaced photos of Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau in black and brownface makeup.

While some were critical of the leader's response in the wake of the revelations, others said Trudeau's apology was adequate.

Below is part of Thompson's interview on Checkup.

Past photos and a video of Justin Trudeau in blackface and brownface surfaced last week after Time Magazine published a photo of the Liberal leader dressed as Aladdin during a 'Arabian Nights' themed fundraiser in 2001. (Carlos Osorio/Reuters)

When you first saw those pictures of Justin Trudeau, what went through your head, what did you see?

So one, I wasn't surprised.

Two, I haven't been surprised either by the reaction of a lot of Canadians — some of whom are racialized — who say it's not a big deal.

Why?

Because racialized Canadians, like white Canadians, don't understand the black experience. The black experience is very unique to this country, as it is to the U.S., as it is to the U.K., as it is to France, as it is to every Western nation.

The problem in our country, like around the world, is that the fact of blackness is like an unknown thing to most people. They don't know our histories of slavery and enslavement. They don't know our histories of segregation. They don't know our histories of oppression. 

So they attach it to, 'Well, I'm a racialized person and it doesn't offend me.' Well that doesn't help the black person who is actually the subject and object of blackface, right? 

There's like a disconnect that we're actually talking about black people and brown people, i.e. people who are either Indigenous people who are from South Asia, India and Pakistan.

Did it trigger any personal memories for you?

Of course. In my lifetime, I have been in spaces where white people have showed up in blackface … In my lifetime, I have been called the N-word countlessly when I was a kid. In my lifetime, I have been denied access to going into places.

WATCH: Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau apologizes for wearing blackface:

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau says his decision to get made up in blackface was a bad idea, and that he let a lot of people down. 1:14

You said you've been in spaces where people have showed up wearing blackface?

Yes, I have. It happened in high school. It happened when I was in university. This is not new.

What was that like for you?

At first you think, 'Is this a joke?' Like you actually are shocked, you can't believe that someone is doing this.

Mind you, this was years ago, so at that time I was thinking, 'Can I say something? You know what, I'm not going to say anything; I don't want to cause trouble or I don't want to get in trouble.' 

I was much younger then and the reality is, I think some of your callers have pointed to this, is that, yes, the country was different. Canada was a very different place 30 years ago, 40 years ago. Even 20 years ago, it was very different.

You said that Canadians, both racialized and white, don't necessarily know the black history of Canada, and you wrote in the Toronto Star this week that 'blackface is as Canadian as hockey.' What do you mean by that? 

It actually predates organized hockey. Like people in the Canadian milieu, the Canadian soil, have been performing blackface since the 1840s and '50s.

How prevalent is [blackface] ... over the course of history?

There would've been a point in the 20th century where this was the standard form of entertainment during any kind of event: fundraiser, graduation.

Where today we go to concerts, back in the '20s, it would have been a blackface show. It was literally everywhere in everything.

It wasn't this thing that people would have been shocked to see. That's how commonplace it was.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau is shown in this 2001 photo published in the yearbook of West Point Grey Academy, a private school where Trudeau was teaching at the time. (Time.com)

Can you explain it, for those who are unfamiliar, how has blackface and brownface been used to portray whether it's blacks or folks from the Middle East or South Asians?

The genre itself comes out of the U.S. and if we're going to the traditional place where we locate blackface, [it's] in the minstrel show. And the minstrel show itself would depict sort of this dichotomous black character; one living in the north and one living in the south. 

The black body in the south was on the plantation. People wonder where the stereotype of black people and watermelon comes from — it comes from the minstrel show depicting the southern character who's lazy yet contented in their subordination. 

Then, conversely, the character in the north is almost this character who's out of place. So in the minstrel show, the northern character would wear suits with elongated collars and just really loud pinstripes and really long feet. 

If we now take what I just described and think about the stereotypes that get implanted onto black people, it's still in our culture. 

How many times have I travelled anywhere outside of Canada and they say, 'There's black people in Canada?' It's almost like a joke. Like you can't even believe that a black person is in the north. 

Where does that come from? Well that all comes from this 1830s performance that has just rolled into everything, so much so that we just take it as a given.


This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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