Blackface is once again at the forefront of media frenzy with revelations of Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, having donned the make-up years ago. Some see this as justice, while others are no doubt asking if it’s just a witch hunt. The timing couldn’t be worse for him as Canada is a month out from an election.
This departure from Trudeau’s progressive image isn’t entirely unsupported.
Times were different. Part of a Halloween costume is makeup regardless of the intent. I do not see this as discriminating behavior. I understand that people now find it offensive and it is not appropriate but in older times, it wasn’t viewed in the same light. I don’t think there was ill intent and he had apologized and learned from it. Nobody is perfect especially when young.
— Laurie McNeil, Ontario
I find this current controversy ridiculous and politically motivated. What is wrong if at a private gala participants dress or wear the makeup differently, even caricature or lightheartedly mock each other. Canadians have enough sense of humor and understanding of diversity to take that.
— Binoy Shanker Prasad, Dundas, Ontario
Supportive comments such as these published in the New York Times match the tone of those found on social media. These perspectives come from those who don’t find blackface offensive, often alleging that it wasn’t something offensive when they were younger.
The 'back in my day' justification for why blackface is okay may have stood in the mid-century but come the early 2000s, that doesn’t cut the cheese. On top of this, Trudeau has apologised and is set to make an in-person apology to Jagmeet Singh, the leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party - who is of Indian heritage.
Interestingly, hard-line conservatives seem unsure if they should either support Trudeau’s past actions and apology or condemn him to score points against the “woke” left. American conservative commentators like Fox News’ Tucker Carlson have seamlessly and paradoxically labelled Trudeau as a hypocrite, but kept short of condemning blackface. Australia’s Andrew Bolt weighed into the debate, suggesting that wearing blackface has a level of appropriateness when it pays homage to people of colour.
Clearly the conversation around Trudeau’s instances of blackface are unprecedented, as rarely is a champion of the progressive left caught in such a controversy. It’s unclear how this controversy will ultimately affect his re-election but it begs the question of whether or not any apology he gives really is free of political motivation.
Political implications aside, I’m wondering why are so many on my social media defending such an obvious taboo?
One line of defence for blackface is to reject criticism as 'political correctness gone mad'. However, calling out acts of racism is not political correctness, gone mad or otherwise.
CNN reporter, Van Jones, coined the term “whitelash” to replace backlash, as a way of explaining the swing towards President Donald Trump after President Barack Obama. It’s a good term to have part of the zeitgeist, it refers to the attacks levelled at the calling out of racism and racist behaviour.
For all the innocent-enough defences of blackface, the truth is the denigration of wearing blackface is often rebuked with a harsh whitelash. Most likely because calling it out threatens the sustainability of ‘white privilege’ - being the privilege to paint one's face black and not expect to face moralistic consequences.
Of what I’ve seen, one of the glib defences of blackface goes something like, 'people used to attend dress up parties dressed as a cowboy, nun or doctor etc' and by extension, they now suppose they were being offensive to these groups.
What they fail to understand is that one thing is not another. Just because some costumes are not offensive doesn't mean that others are.
So, what makes something unequivocally offensive? It’s if the group being represented, in whatever form, says as much.
Nobody’s saying that everybody should be uniformly offended by blackface, just that asking people who aren’t offended by something, to not offend, is not asking a lot. Applying dark makeup doesn't make someone a person of colour and certainly doesn't give that offender grounds to adjudicate on matters of white-black racism.
For white people to proselytise why blackface is or isn’t offensive, is simply irrelevant because it isn’t for them to say. As a group shielded by white privilege from the belittlement of acts such as blackface, defending it for whatever reason, is the height of exercising such privilege.
The conversation around blackface today - in light of Justin Trudeau’s apology - goes further than before to challenge if it is ever excusable or forgivable, regardless if it's due to the folly of youth or as a homage.
Can there be offence if offence was not intended? With blackface, nobody can fully know someone’s intent at the time of doing it and so it can only be judged for what it is, or appears to be.
The issue at hand is that that people of colour still remain the plaything of the white world. On the matter of blackface, I say without hesitation that the only opinions of merit are those of the victims.
This is perhaps the hardest lesson for the white community to learn.
Jack Wilkie-Jans is a contemporary artist, political commentator and freelance writer from the the Waanyi, Teppathiggi and Tjungundji tribes of North Queensland.