Prime Minister Justin Trudeau Under Fire for Brownface Photo: raceAhead

September 19, 2019, 6:41 PM UTC

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, everybody’s All-Canadian, is under fire for appearing as Aladdin in brownface makeup at an “Arabian Nights” themed gala thrown by the West Point Grey Academy. Trudeau was a teacher at the time. The photograph, which was published by Time yesterday, appeared in the school’s yearbook for the academic year 2000-2001. 

The costume is not subtle or open to interpretation; he dialed it straight up to eleven. To his credit, he owned it immediately, though his apology was two-parts boilerplate, one part odd. 

“I shouldn’t have done that. I should have known better and I didn’t. I’m really sorry,” telling reporters he was also “pissed at himself.” When asked if he thought the costume was racist, he didn’t equivocate. “Yes it was. I didn’t consider it racist at the time, but now we know better.”

When asked if more pictures were coming, he admitted to another incident in high school, in which he performed the Harry Belafonte hit “The Banana Boat Song/Day-O” song while wearing blackface. 

And then, this: “The fact of the matter is that I’ve always—and you’ll know this—been more enthusiastic about costumes than is sometimes appropriate,” Trudeau said.


Trudeau joins a long line of public figures who have been outed for not noticing that they were enjoying racist revelry in the past. 

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam decided that the best way forward when confronted earlier this year with an Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook photo of a man in blackface that was identified as him—and standing next to a man in Klan outfit—was to simply forget whether he’d blackened his skin and showed up looking like a fool at a party in medical school. 

The outcry eventually went away. But political spectacle aside, the Northam case was a missed opportunity. 

“We all believe in the tradition of personal growth, for ourselves and for other people; there is an acknowledgment that people change, and that storyline is built into our culture and belief systems,” Arthur Markman, a professor in the department of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin told the BBC about the incident. 

Unfortunately, that’s not the case in winner-take-all arenas, like politics.

“But that is overlaid with how politics is always competitive, and part of it is to exploit the weaknesses of opponents—for so knowing that, there is a fine line to tread for politicians about how much to admit and address specific allegations,” says Markman.

For what it’s worth, The National Council of Canadian Muslims thanked Trudeau last night for his swift apology, after tweeting a statement from executive director Mustafa Farooq calling the prime minister’s photo “deeply saddening.” He went on to explain exactly why.

“Seeing the Prime Minister in brownface/blackface is deeply saddening,” said Farooq. “The wearing of blackface/brownface is reprehensible, and hearkens back to a history of racism and an Orientalist mythology which is unacceptable.”

 While reporters and political opponents will be combing through the archives looking for more of Trudeau’s misplaced cosplay enthusiasm, I hope everyone spends as much time learning about the disturbing history of Orientalism and its attendant racism.

And, I expect that there will be plenty to find that will implicate all sorts of people who simply didn’t know better at the time. Again, we have Northam to thank for this insight. 

An expensive investigation into the provenance of the Northam picture showed that 10 blackface photos were published in the EVMS yearbook from 1976 to 2013. That’s a lot of people —including friends, family, and faculty —who failed to notice that a bunch of future health care professionals were doing something racist and hurtful.

While it’s up to Canadian voters to consider Trudeau’s record and the needs of their nation, it’s up to everyone to do some archival soul-searching. 

After all, even if you don’t notice your complicity in racist, misogynist, or bigoted behavior, it still leaves a mark.

On Point

Minority contracts under review after Los Angeles Times investigation The investigation found that some $300 million in government contracts in 18 states had been awarded to firms falsely claiming to be founded by Native Americans and enrolled tribe members. Now, officials in six states, including California, have begun stripping certification from these companies; two House committees and the Department of Transportation are also launching their own reviews. It’s a messy bit of business: A company owned by in-laws of then-House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) received more than $7 million in federal contracts because of his brother-in-law’s “membership” in the Northern Cherokee Nation, which has been deemed fraudulent by Cherokee tribal authorities. William Wages, who is married to McCarthy’s sister, claims to be one-eighth Cherokee. A review of his census records show no Cherokee lineage.
Los Angeles Times

LGBTQ rights at risk The Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments in three cases that explore protections from discrimination based on sex under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Experts say it will be the most consequential review of LGBTQ and women’s rights in the modern era. "These are the single most important set of explicitly LGBT cases to ever reach the Supreme Court," Chase Strangio, a staff attorney at the ACLU tells The New Republic. The cases address all aspects of sexual orientation and gender, and if protections aren’t affirmed, could all workers could face discrimination and dismissal based on their ability to "appear, behave, and identify" according to the biases held by their employers. While things are not great now, people identifying as LGBTQ can still be fired in 26 states, the Title VII cases have been considered essential first steps toward justice. Advocates are getting ready for the October 8th showdown. Where will your company be?
The New Republic

More states move to protect natural hair styles in the workplace Natural hairstyles are a persistent loophole in legal workplace protections, adding significant emotional pain (and expense) to black professionals under pressure to conform to standards of acceptable, "clean-cut," beauty. New Jersey, Tennessee, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, and other states have put forth legislation designed to explicitly ban race-based hair discrimination. California and New York signed similar legislation into law this summer. The measures have garnered support from a diverse group of advocates, including National Urban League and Western Center on Law & Poverty, and Dove, the beauty brand owned by Unilever. Jena McGregor does a wonderful job explaining why the issue is so important; the only thing better than the story of lawmakers doing the right things for black employees is the photos the Washington Post used to accompany the story. Well done.
Washington Post

On Background

What is ‘Orientalism’? Justin Trudeau is under fire for participating with outsized enthusiasm in a theme-party that frankly, should never have been thrown. To dig in a bit deeper, start with this helpful explainer on the enduring problems with "Orientalism," which is its inherent bigotry. "'Orientalism' is a way of seeing that imagines, emphasizes, exaggerates, and distorts differences of Arab peoples and cultures as compared to that of Europe and the U.S. It often involves seeing Arab culture as exotic, backward, uncivilized, and at times dangerous.” It has a long history in Western painting, literature, cartoons, and Canadian high schools, evidently. It’s also the basis of widespread colonialist activity. "Orientalism provided a rationalization for European colonialism based on a self-serving history in which 'the West' constructed 'the East' as extremely different and inferior, and therefore in need of Western intervention or 'rescue.'"

Understanding Puerto Rico’s history with the U.S. Throughline is more than just a great podcast for history lovers, it’s become an essential resource for explaining the chaotic world we’re living in. Case in point, this dramatic deep dive into the history of Puerto Rico, which became a U.S. territory in 1898. It starts with the island’s struggle to shake off the shackles of the Spanish empire in the late 1890s and the U.S. role in their liberation. It was an ally move that was most welcome at the time. So, what happened to make Puerto Rican nationalists so angry that four of them waged a shooting attack on the U.S. Capitol in 1954? Hosts Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei are excellent, and the layered storytelling shows how the history matters today. The big takeaway? Clear away all the barriers preventing the Puerto Rican people from deciding their future for themselves.
NPR Throughline

What non-majority culture women can learn from Adele Lim Gender equity expert Tanya Tarr has nailed it with this take on Crazy Rich Asians screenwriter Adele Lim’s decision to publicly walk away from an insulting offer to work on the sequel—and what executives on the other side of the negotiation table need to do better in future. (The drama: Lim was offered $110,000 to return for a sequel movie, while her colleague Peter Chiarelli was offered $800,000 to $1 million to return. Ouch.) Tarr did some deep analysis of both the film and the industry, to determine the strength of the studio’s position going into negotiations, compared to Lim, a relative unknown, but whose authentic insights helped deliver a monster hit. It gave her enormous, though unusual, leverage in this situation. “The executives never fully recovered from their own collapsing of the negotiation by offering too low of a starting figure," says Tarr. And now, it’s costing them. "Rare is the cost of failure taken into account. Cost isn’t just lost revenue. It can be reputation fallout," she says.


Tamara El-Waylly helps write and produce raceAhead.

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"I am who I am despite what America has put before me. I am who I am despite the obstacles that we have all faced based upon race and based upon social and spiritual humiliation."

Harry Belafonte

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