Trudeau’s theatrics are just that
The recent publication of photos of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dressed as a fictional character from 1001 Nights, complete with darkened face, has done wonders for raising discussion on racism in the middle of an election campaign. That is a good thing because such an open discussion is needed to address the perennial problem of racism. In a matter such as this, context is everything, and, if anything, this one needs it badly.
Given all that we know from his actions, Trudeau, a former drama teacher, is known for indulging in his love of theatre and took every opportunity to don costumes quite often. Once he did a take on Harry Belafonte’s Banana Boat Song (Day-O), and darkened his face to look like the American-Jamaican bard.
This “1001 Nights” escapade dates back to the time he was a drama teacher in a Vancouver high school. He’s seen posing with three other costumed participants during an “Arabian Nights” themed party.
A white man posing in what is often referred to as “blackface” was bound to cause a furor as it did. People of colour, from light brown to black, were taken aback; in particular, blackface resonates quite strongly in the hearts of some Afro-Canadians who know all too well that this American practice was basically intended to demean and denigrate a people who had spent centuries in enslavement, and were struggling to recover their heavily compromised humanity under a vicious system of exploitation.
But that basic response was one of many, and they vary as much as the people who spoke or wrote letters to the editor of the daily newspapers. The reactions were roughly the following: it’s racist and Trudeau should know better; disappointment but accept his apology and won’t change their vote; it was simply a costume worn in a thematic setting and that’s all it is; those who accuse Trudeau are hypocritical and he has nothing to apologize for.
A little over a week after the story broke it seemed to have died as quickly as it arose. And given the response of the people who was supposed to have been harmed, it was the media that seemed to have had more interest in it. One columnist pointed out that a popular Toronto paper had eleven stories on the issue in a single day.
Not everybody considers darkening one’s skin to appear true to a dark-skinned fictional character as racism, nor has anyone accused the Prime Minister of being racist. After all, theatre is a place where somebody’s oxen get gored, where striving for authenticity is central to its existence and, thankfully, will remain so. Trudeau was true to his theatrical code.
Had Trudeau been known for making racist remarks or failing to defend such practices, then this would have been a different story. And the fact that the responses to the photos have been so varied is an indication this is hardly an open and shut case; not in the case of Trudeau who, according to a local columnist, “…seems that in the years before he entered politics, Trudeau was a serial offender against the norms of political correctness.” So was his father; and many of those who took offense at his son, loved Pierre Trudeau for it. Remember Trudeau senior’s pirouette behind Queen Elizabeth’s back in 1997? It appears that the ham runs in the family.
The main criticism of Trudeau darkening his features comes from those who have a visceral reaction to blackface. But, for more than half of the “black” population of Canada, which comes from the Caribbean, a place where blackface played little or no part in its history, not too many have a deep feeling about it. In truth, it’s a safe bet that had Trudeau performed his Belafonte shtick in front of a Caribbean audience, they would more likely have broken up with laughter, admired his pluck but not his talent.
Justine Trudeau is guilty of nothing more than depicting a character from an ancient book that derived its “1001 Nights” stories from sources in India, the Middle East, Mediterranean Africa, etc; stories that are chock full of characters of “colour” of whom Trudeau chose to depict one of them.
Caribbean people come from a tradition of street theatre called Carnival, a place where the normal rules of social engagement are suspended; where masquerade depictions push the envelope much further than Justin Trudeau could ever imagine. In fact it’s a safe bet that he would have reveled in the excitement of all that theatre.
The Prime Minister is guilty of nothing more than being a ham. And given how unimaginative and contrived politics has become, a little ham may well be the tonic in a world of professional politicians where turning a phrase is a lost art.