The whole world is aflutter with the news that a child of privilege, of Canada’s equivalent to the Kennedy family, was a dumbass racist who wore blackface more times than he can recall.
Indeed, at one point it was the most shared story in the world. Justin Trudeau would get his comeuppance. The liberal, diversity-loving, intersectional feminist prime minister, the bohemian bon vivant, the man who rivals Vladimir Putin in his bare-chested selfie penchant, is revealed to be nothing more than Joe Biden with abs.
Yet just as Biden has not suffered politically due to his history of being overtly handsy with young women, Trudeau is teflon when one raises the specter of Andrew Scheer, the reactionary leader of the Conservative Party. His very image and base should be shattered. As right wingers crow hypocrisy in his face, they are right this time, aren’t they? By all accounts, Trudeau should be canceled. He’s not your friend, buddy! He’s not your buddy, guy!
Yet while Trudeau is being taken to task by many, centrist Canadian voters are not likely to punish him for his transgressions. First off, this constituency, that floats between the New Democratic Party (NDP) and the Liberal Party of Canada, has broadly abandoned the former due to it having a person of color, Jagmeet Singh, as their leader.
The Canadian professional-managerial class, those who comprise the nonprofit bureaucracies and the civil service, those in the private sector who aspire to appear as “good corporate citizens,” the base of both the Liberals and the NDP in large cities, are very forgiving. A few years back, Ontario’s former attorney general Michael Bryant, like Trudeau, a Liberal, killed a cyclist, though was found criminally innocent. Now he’s feted, and by all accounts, quite skilled in his new publicly lauded helm as the head of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. Trudeau, even more than Joe Biden, is royalty to this class, and if he fucks up, he fucks up. He’s our guy.
Indeed, as one friend put it, it has an almost dramaturgical quality: it will allow Trudeau to construct the critics he does have into one amorphous blob. Or rather, it will allow his supporters in the media to do so. It is perfect for him.
Antiracists can be framed as unforgiving, while the constituency over which the Liberals and the NDP are competing can be given a pass in their unspoken squeamishness about the brown guy with a turban. It almost seems calculated.
Where are all of these civil society forces when the Liberals claim that they have the power to override Indigenous vetoes on pipelines, let alone the ongoing fact of Canada being an apartheid state? Where are these denizens of Rathnelly and NDG-based beautiful souls when asked about the safe third country agreement that Shree Paradkar, in a powerful op-ed for the Toronto Star, points out, “allows us to hide behind the grotesque American racism against refugees while having to do nothing on that humanitarian crisis?” These are crocodile tears that require no effort, just condemnation.
A quick look through Trudeau’s dilettantish charmed life reveals him to be squarely in the mainstream of this fraction of the Canadian bourgeoisie. This is how we can situate his penchant for “respecting” other cultures — by dressing up as them.
This was most humorous and somewhat scandalous on his trip to Modi’s India, dressing like he should be in a 1968 garage band third on the bill at the Fillmore East. Of course, this gave buddy-of-Canada Modi a pass, but never mind that. Or take one of his “brownface” photos, he is posing with two smiling Sikh men, and is a regular feature at Sikh community events during campaigns. He wears traditional Chinese garb with Chinese leaders, like his dad. He dons a yarmulke for Jewish community events. He affects a classic white gay male aesthetic at Pride parades. He aw-shucks it at labor events — indeed a good chunk of the private sector Canadian Labour bureaucracy is “in the tank” for Trudeau.
The statements from union bureaucrats, notably Unifor and the Canadian Labour Congress, accepting Trudeau’s apology have been nothing short of reprehensible.
Of course, Trudeau’s biggest white frat kid fetish, like Canadian rich kids from time immemorial, is Indigenous people. Tatted-up and soft-spoken, Trudeau and his loyalists are fiercely defensive when questioning whether he has anything hinting at something aside from absolute veneration of Indigenous people and their culture, not unlike Joe Biden’s tales of Corn Pop.
Yet the real Justin Trudeau threw his Indigenous former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould under the bus when she resisted “influence” to go soft on Trudeau cronies in SNC-Lavalin. While Raybould got some public support, including obvious self-interested bullshit from the Tories, Trudeau was the last man standing, and it didn’t affect his standing with his base at all, not one little bit. Even disgraced figures like the mercurial Gerald Butts have come in from the cold.
Likewise, his commitment to diversity and tolerance has not stopped him from applying kid gloves to the Quebecois “charter of values,” under which public sector workers cannot wear religious garb — except, of course, crucifixes.
As schoolkids, Canadians are taught how their “mosaic” of multiculturalism is superior to the “melting pot” means with which minority groups are apparently assimilated in the United States. The latter, we were taught, was assimilationist, all about reducing a given identity toward the whole.
In point of fact, this “mosaic” approach is the key window dressing of a deeply racist, white supremacist, settler-colonial society. The approach itself manufactures consent. Especially with the concentration camps and white supremacist attacks in the United States, it makes Canadians, including Canadians of color, feel like they are in a safer society. Yet it is also a means with which the white Christian elites are able to pat themselves on the back and absolve themselves of historical and present wrongdoing.
It is replete with contradictions even. Like middle-class Jews who have no problem with being stereotyped as “good with money” or Andrew Yang’s self-deprecating gibes about Asians and math, there are those within minority communities who actually like Trudeau for this kind of behavior. Recall that he was photographed in brownface with Sikhs, one of whom was quoted as being not offended at all by Trudeau’s move.
This mosaic is Canada’s way of remaining a white society by pretending not to be one. This is not to say that the Canadian ruling class is lily-white, but more to the point that entering it required adjustment to the mores of Rosedale and Beaconsfield, to name rich WASP neighborhoods in Toronto and Montreal.
More to a point, by its very design under the apartheid champ Pierre Trudeau, it was meant to gloss over class tensions by the promotion and funding of what amount to be “notables” in this or that “community.” Everything from welfare state mechanisms to publicly funded television (one current hit show is about a lovable Korean shopkeeper) is predicated upon something that walks a fine line between “celebrating diversity” and fetishizing the other.
As opposed to single welfare state agencies that serve all communities, some communities within the Canadian “mosaic,” while all receiving the same welfare state funding for their communities, are more well-endowed with private donations than others. Some Catholic hospitals in our socialized health care system won’t perform abortions — indeed, abortions are very hard to come by in Atlantic Canada. Similar examples abound throughout Canadian “civil society,” an amorphous entity of the nonprofit and public-private “third sector” of do-gooders from Newfoundland to Vancouver Island.
Canada pats itself on the back for legalizing marijuana while the first person arrested for possession of marijuana with intent to distribute after “legalization” was an Indigenous man. And the same woke prime minister who attempted to destroy the Canadian Union of Postal Workers is feted by the country’s largest private-sector unions.
In Spike Lee’s last great film, Bamboozled, in a biting satirical play on Mel Brooks’s The Producers, a black television executive (Damon Wayans) proposes a blackface minstrel show, hiring two buskers, making it about as outrageous and offensive as possible — with the express purpose of getting fired. This was in response to working for a hip white male producer (Michael Rapaport) who freely uses “the n-word” and claims to be more authentically black than the buttoned-up Pierre Delacroix, given his black wife and kids and dedication to hip-hop culture.
This producer often refused to give the green light to shows proposed by Delacroix because they were “Cosby clones,” that is to say, shows that reflected Delacroix’s own middle-class experience, as opposed to shows “about the hood.” To the surprise of Delacroix as well as the buskers, the blackface “Mantan Minstrel Show” is a major hit with audiences, black and white, all of whom attend tapings of the show in blackface themselves. At first, this disturbs Delacroix, but he later recants, calling the show satire.
Lee, often a cultural reactionary, is hitting on a key point with regard to antiracist strategies and the distinction between utterance/appearance on the one hand, and concrete racist practice on the other hand. The two are distinct yet related. What is truly racist in the sense of using one’s structural power against people of color in Lee’s film is the Rapaport character, in spite of his black wife and kids. Yet it is one of the TV performers, Manray, played by the brilliant tap dancer Savion Glover, who is kidnapped by a black nationalist hip-hop ensemble.
Later, when this group, played by real hip-hop artists including Mos Def, are caught, they are all gunned down except for one member, played by the white Jewish MC Serch of 3rd Bass, whose rap name is “1/16 Black.” He begs to be shot with his comrades, but the cops just can’t shoot a white guy.
The experience of Manray/Glover, who is kidnapped finally after feeling a mounting sense of disgust for wearing blackface, reminds one of the leader of the (nominally) social-democratic New Democratic Party in Canada, Jagmeet Singh. Singh is a really solid human being, a principled politician. While not on the far left of the party, he is the first racialized person to lead a major party in Canadian history and has a solid record within criminal justice reform circles and the community organizing scene in Toronto.
As a striking worker at York University, I recall more than one occasion in which Singh, with his comrades from the Sikh Activist Network, brought food and solidarity to our picket lines over a decade ago. While he had some establishment support (predominantly to stave off the Left), Singh has been sabotaged by his own nominally social-democratic party from day one.
Starting with the present moment, though the official campaign period is only just beginning, the NDP is in terrible shape at a time in which social-democratic and left-leaning parties are on the rise around the world. Many ridings are only just now naming candidates. A whole swathe of east coast “dippers” left the party over repeated stories that the NDP would have problems in New Brunswick due to the public’s racism, or as the bourgeois media puts it, “discomfort” with Singh’s turban.
What is more, Singh did a television advertisement for Quebec in which he takes off his turban and waves around his long hair. His believable explanation speaks volumes about the common sense of Canadian antiracism and its limits. Singh simply wanted to “affirm” Quebec, to show them he was in his own words, “an ally.”
That in order to show he was an ally to this amorphously defined entity known as Quebec, what with its charter of values that actually prevent people like Singh from working in the public sector, he gave a knowing and accepting, indeed tailing, wink to precisely this sentiment. This sentiment, by this analysis, is not racism, but the justified concerns of one of Canada’s national minorities, indeed an original one, about religion imposing itself upon the public sphere. At least this is how racist Quebecois justify their support for the charter of values. So the white guy can wear blackface and brownface in Canada, while the brown guy has to, as it were, wear whiteface.
Meanwhile, Singh, from the start, was subject not merely to racism for being a brown guy, but also Sikh-baiting, including from Hindu nationalist forces, accusing him of supporting violent “Khalistani” movements, even claiming he celebrated terrorist attacks. To his credit, Singh did not go the easy route and “distance himself” from anything; he proudly admitted going to Sikh community events and used the opportunity to educate the public about India’s mass murder of Sikhs in the eighties.
Yet here, Singh feels he needs to reassure Quebec he is an “ally.” There is very little doubt that Singh is not a supporter of Quebec’s charter of values. Yet he is an easygoing guy and accepts the fundamental premises of Canadian top-down multiculturalism, itself a sort of ouroboros, the snake swallowing its own tail by “tolerating the intolerant.” The telos of this is not merely Singh feeling compelled to tail Quebecois racism, it is the far more disturbing fact that Maxime Bernier, head of the white supremacist People’s Party of Canada, is being allowed in the television debates.
It is easy to condemn Justin Trudeau for being a spoiled brat who doesn’t even remember how many times he wore blackface or brownface, donned fake afros, kitted himself out as a seventies-style pimp, or otherwise violated basic antiracist principles. As recently reported by Stuart Parker in Ricochet, when the infamous photo of Trudeau, with not just his face but his hands “blacked up,” was taken at a bougie Vancouver private school, mockery of blackface and racist stereotypes were hotly contested issues in the Vancouver theater scene in which little Justin was at the very least familiar, given his profession as a drama teacher.
What more is there to say about both the individual behavior and structural role of the administrator of an apartheid state who wears brownface because he loves diversity? Trudeau and Trump are two sides of the same coin: Justin Trudeau is still not your friend.