When my boyfriend texted me screenshots from the Time article about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s multiple incidents of brownface and blackface yesterday morning I was surprised — but only that I hadn’t already seen the news.
I hadn’t checked Twitter yet, but after seeing the photograph, I didn’t want to. I didn’t need to, to know that there would be some half-hearted apology from Trudeau, and victorious “I told you so’s” from his opponents.
But this isn’t just campaign material for another party; it’s a wider issue that people of colour face every day, and the choices that we have to make as a result of microaggressions, “mistakes,” and “I should have known betters.”
Being a second-generation Canadian from an Indian background, I’m not unfamiliar with instances of racism, but this one hit differently.
Seeing that photograph made me feel like I didn’t belong in the country that I have been privileged enough to call home since the day I was born. It made me feel like “even the good ones” like Trudeau just don’t get it, and it made me rethink the time I met Trudeau when he was visiting Carleton University on World Press Freedom Day to answer questions from student journalists.
It was a small group, and not lacking people of colour, and while that meeting was disappointing for other reasons, this incident just made me rethink the entire interaction.
Seeing the leader of a country that tries so hard to differentiate itself from our neighbours south of the border openly mock my culture and my personhood on multiple occasions (don’t think I forgot about his overzealous outfits on his trip to India) made me feel angry and small, but it also made me nervous.
While there’s nothing about this photograph that hasn’t already been articulated, much more clearly by those with much more authority on the subject — Canada has a very nuanced racism problem; Trudeau should put his money — or policies — where his mouth is; This shouldn’t be the first time in the election campaign that issues of racism are part of the discussion — it made me wonder if there’s another discussion to be had.
Specifically, one centred around the idea of forgiveness for the sake of peace, and the polls. How many times are we going to keep making excuses for the lesser of two (or more) evils?
I know, despite this incident, there will be people who choose to vote Liberal over NDP because a white man in brownface is still a more comfortable choice than a brown man in a turban. And I know that there are people who have been affected by this news in these communities who may follow suit just to avoid splitting the vote.
Even more discouraging is the reaction from other people in the community, who refuse to acknowledge the fact that this is, of course, racist. That’s not even a question.
But still, I overheard an opinion today from another person of colour who said that it was okay for Trudeau to wear blackface because of the things he’s done for marginalized communities, which, besides being white saviour rhetoric, isn’t even justified because the person saying this was not black, and if he were, he wouldn’t speak for an entire community of people.
Much in the same way, the Sikh men interviewed by Omni News in the tweet below don’t speak for the entire South Asian community.
It’s hard to remind myself of that though when I hear these views in interactions with people I know. It’s hard to remind myself of the fact that my voice matters when my prime minister doesn’t seem to think of people who look like me as more than caricatures, when he doesn’t seem to think that his past actions were even worth addressing until they came to light, or even the fact that he’s repeated the same “mistake” so many times but still thinks it can be called an unfortunate oversight from his younger days.
The fact that Trudeau believes he can just apologize this away, and the fact that he’s probably right, is the bigger issue on my mind this election season.
Anchal Sharma is a fourth-year communications student at the University of Ottawa and incoming host of the Fulcrum’s One in Five podcast.