In the past 24 hours our prime minister, champion of “diversity is our strength,” was revealed to have worn “brownface” or blackface three times that we know of so far. Time broke the story Wednesday evening with a yearbook photo from 2001, showing Justin Trudeau in what the publication called “brownface” at an “Arabian Nights”-themed gala, held at a Vancouver private school where he taught high school students. He was 29 years old.
Trudeau addressed media quickly after Time published its piece and my Twitter feed blew up. When asked if he’d ever done something like this before, he revealed he participated in a high school talent show for which he had darkened his skin and performed “Day-O,” a Jamaican folk song famously performed by Harry Belafonte. In an update to its original story, Time confirmed a high school photo showing Trudeau wearing blackface and an afro wig. Then, on Thursday, Global reported on a video from a separate incident that shows Trudeau in blackface with his hands in the air, making faces and laughing, a video a Liberal spokesperson said was filmed in the early ’90s.
“I deeply regret that I did that,” he said last night of the yearbook photo. “I should have known better, but I didn’t.” In a subsequent press conference on Thursday afternoon, Trudeau said that “darkening your face, regardless of the context, is always unacceptable because of the racist history of blackface.” He added that “I should have understood that then and I never should have done it.”
Trudeau’s apologies reminded me how reality is very different for white people. When the “brownface” photo was taken, Trudeau was 29. That means he was a grown man when he made the decision to go out of his way to find dark makeup/paint, spend time applying it to his face, arms and hands, and then appear in public and pose for photos. He was a grown man who thought, “Huh, this seems like a good idea.” The lived reality of actual Black and brown people did not occur to this—and I cannot emphasize it enough—grown man.
Ignorance like this is not a luxury racialized people can afford. At the presser Trudeau said, “I’ve always—and you’ll know this—been more enthusiastic about costumes than is sometimes appropriate.” Donning race as some sort of costume to wear at a gala is a privilege I can’t even fathom as a brown woman. In Canada, Black and Indigenous people especially face disproportionate levels of discrimination in all facets of life. A 2018 report by the Ontario Human Rights Commission on racial profiling and racial discrimination by the Toronto Police Service confirms that Black people are over-represented in incidents of serious injury and deadly force involving the TPS. A 2019 national inquiry found that Indigenous women were 12 times more likely to be killed or to disappear than other women in Canada.
These are just a few examples of how racial identity defines your life, your physical and mental health, your safety, your access to education, your access to employment—the list goes on and on. In 2001, the year a 29-year-old Trudeau didn’t know any better than to don dark makeup, children like me were reminded quickly of the implications of living as a racialized body post-9/11.
We do not get to go home and wash our skin off. And here’s the thing, if any of us ever do somehow forget what we look like, the world is quick to remind us—whether it be slurs on the subway, having our bodies threatened and violated, being pulled aside at the airport, being pulled aside by the police, being denied access to spaces and services, being denied the right to be treated with basic dignity and respect.
This is not a costume. This is our lives. We are taught this lesson as children because we must learn this lesson to survive.
It’s true, Trudeau is the epitome of privilege—not just as a straight, white man, but on top of that, as the son of a former prime minister.
It was his privilege that likely made it possible for him to have lived so long without, as he claims, knowing any better. And that bubble of privilege is a systemic issue, one that continues to this day. Last night, as the news broke, journalist Ishmael N. Daro shared the following tweet:
Trudeau is, of course, not the only person to have made this mistake, and he is, sadly, likely not the last. So what is Trudeau going to do, with the power he has, to dismantle the structures of racism that allowed for his ignorance to thrive? How is he going to make space for—and give power to—people who already know better, people who have had to know better by virtue of their identities and lived experiences, who understand racism because it’s entrenched in their lives, the lives of their loved ones, their communities? It’s time for the prime minister to show us that being a leader isn’t just another costume.