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The second of two photos of Justin Trudeau at West Point Grey Academy’s 2001 “Arabian Nights” gala, published in the school’s ViewPoints newsletter.
A photo posted online by Time, showing Justin Trudeau with dark makeup on his face, neck and hands.
I woke up to a familiar feeling Thursday morning, after photos emerged showing Justin Trudeau dressed up as Aladdin
One of my first experiences with racism in Canada unfortunately came within days of me arriving in this country, almost literally fresh off a 21 hour journey from my hometown of Penang, Malaysia.
It was early September 2005, the end of summer, and I was sitting on a bench in the courtyard (we called it ‘the quad’) of Trinity College at the University of Toronto, where I would spend the next four years.
A strange conversation was taking place next to me: two white girls were discussing their skin tone, specifically how “dark” they had gotten over the summer. Then I distinctly heard one girl ask the other: “Am I as dark as her yet?”
They glanced over at me, suppressing giggles, and quickly looked away. I suppose this was 2005, pre-Kardashians, when tanning yourself orange was far from fashionable.
I’m calling the comment racist now, because that is exactly what it was. At the time however, I just remember a lurch in my gut, a strange feeling of discomfort, and even worse, an instinct to smile at them, to acknowledge the “joke” and just kind of go along with it.
I woke up to that same feeling on Thursday morning, hours after a series of photos emerged showing our prime minister, Justin Trudeau, dressed up as Aladdin at a themed Arabian Nights gala in a posh Vancouver private school back in 2001. From the picture, it appeared that Trudeau had put in a good amount of effort in painting his face, neck and hands a very dark shade of brown in an attempt to resemble a Disney character from the Middle East.
My first instinct, again, was to laugh, but this time at how absurd, ridiculous and frankly sad the whole thing was. Here you have a 29-year-old rich kid, a teacher nonetheless, who grew up with a famous dad, and whose rise within the ranks of the Liberal Party surely cannot be attributed to an intellectual bend, making a complete and utter mockery out of brown folk — people like me.
That guttural feeling of discomfort only morphed into anger when a second photo and a third video came out, both of which show Trudeau in blackface, first singing to Harry Belafonte’s “Day-O”, and then just goofing around with friends, dressed up as a black person.
When the story first broke I was ready to give Trudeau the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps that comes from the fact that I’ve personally felt the positive effects of his government’s openness towards immigration — my parents are direct beneficiaries of this country’s family reunification policy (I sponsored them for citizenship a couple of years ago) and the Liberals made it a priority to speed up that process, which the Conservatives had frozen for a number of years.
But let this sink in: not just once, but at multiple points in his life, our prime minister felt it was comical to imitate people of colour, to use our hair, our skin as a costume. At multiple times, our prime minister, who grew up with the privilege of travelling the world and having access to any piece of literature he could get his hands on, thought absolutely nothing of painting his face black or brown, ignoring the violent history of Orientalism and racial subjugation.
I don’t know Trudeau well enough to know if he’s a racist today (I suspect he’s come a long way since 2001), and I’m generally skeptical about well-crafted, on-script apologies from any politician, but I will say that the ignorance he displayed leaves a very bad taste in my mouth. It screams of arrogance, privilege and an establishment that has laid the foundations for personalities like this to be elevated instead of admonished for their behaviour.
I will leave the analysis of race, class structure and the hypocrisy of Trudeau’s brand to those better equipped to articulate it, but I will say, had I been on the plane with the rest of the press corps I would have asked Trudeau this one question: what did you think of brown and black people when you were growing up? And I suspect the answer might have been something along the lines of “nothing at all”.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019
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