When the news broke that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had appeared in blackface, my stomach dropped. Not that I was particularly invested in Canadian politics, but the prime minister had always been a figure in my mind that championed liberal values and made a point to be an ally to minority groups in his country. It was so disappointing that someone considered a socially conscious politician in a country as diverse as Canada could have made such an embarrassing mistake.
Trudeau was teaching at a private school in 2001 when he attended an “Arabian Nights”-themed party. A photograph surfaced of him wearing a turban and significantly dark makeup on his face, neck, and hands. Two other instances of Trudeau wearing blackface were also discovered, from years prior to the brownface incident.
In his public apology, Trudeau said, “Darkening your face, regardless of the context or the circumstances, is always unacceptable because of the racist history of blackface. I should’ve understood that then, and I never should’ve done it.”
Trudeau claimed that he didn’t know how racist his actions were, and he blamed it on his “layers of privilege.” We can assume that part of his privilege is linked to his father being the former prime minister of Canada. But it raises an interesting question: shouldn’t a childhood surrounded by global politics make someone more aware of practices like blackface? It’s also interesting that upon discussing this with some friends, we came to the conclusion that we learned about blackface and how problematic it was around middle school. If a sheltered 13-year-old knows how racist blackface is, shouldn’t a 29-year-old who grew up as the child of a world leader known as well?
In an attempt to explain his ignorance, Trudeau said, “I have always acknowledged that I come from a place of privilege, but I now need to acknowledge that that comes with a massive blindspot.” Is it enough for him to blame his ignorance on his privilege?
Although the apology was heartfelt, it was repetitive. Trudeau focused on “taking responsibility” for his mistakes and his understandings of the pain he caused people who saw him as an ally. But it appears that Trudeau doesn’t intend to take action beyond recognizing that he let people down. Some have called for his resignation. Canada does have an upcoming election, so perhaps the end of his time as prime minister will come naturally. On the other hand, the scandal has seemed to have died down, so maybe the Canadian people have moved past it.
Trudeau admitted that “wanting to do good and wanting to do better simply isn’t good enough.” Is this offense forgivable? Does his privilege excuse him or make it even more necessary for him to be held accountable? Most importantly, can we separate people’s past mistakes from the person they are in the present?