• Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. (AAP)
This is why we can't have nice things.
By
Sarah Malik

19 Sep 2019 - 4:14 PM  UPDATED 27 Sep 2019 - 10:52 AM

OPINION

No! Not Justin Trudeau. Progressive, handsome, liberal Justin, revealed sporting brown-face at a party? 

This is why we can't have nice things. 

In true Canadian style, Trudeau apologised profusely for a photo surfacing ahead of Canada's October election, showing him in brown-face as part of an Aladdin costume at a party in his twenties. Trudeau, who has been a champion of minorities, employing South Asians in his cabinet, defended himself saying the 2001 get-up was a throwback to a more ignorant time. 

“I dressed up in an Aladdin costume and put makeup on. I shouldn’t have done that. I should have known better, but I didn’t, and I’m really sorry,” he reportedly said.

“It was something that I didn’t think was racist at the time, but now I recognise, it was something racist to do.”

In Australia, there are shrugs and bewilderment when the inevitable blackface controversy comes up.

The open racists I can deal with. The more subtle racism of the down-low fetish is harder to pinpoint because it is coated in what, on the surface, seems like appreciation. It also talks to the strange relationship minorities have with white liberals, who paradoxically champion but can also express cluelessness of the actual experience of minorities. The western fascination with India and South Asia is case in point. It can border on creepy, and is something I've lived with my entire life, but at times feels better than overt racism. 

Trudeau family's adventures in India where they sported sherwanis, shalwar kameez and pagris on every occasion like they were at a costume party, seemed charming at the time but in hindsight now has acquired a kind grotesqueness, something sensed by Indians themselves who deemed the dress-up over-the-top

In Australia, there are shrugs and bewilderment when the inevitable blackface controversy comes up. A kind of innocence that is claimed by those who undertake the ghastly spectacle, despite being continuously schooled on the horrific history of the practice.

When I dressed up as Gwyneth Paltrow for a Christmas party, it never occurred to me to use white paint on my brown skin.

The excuse is usually 'how else can I dress up as Serena Williams or a black celebrity I profess to adore except by festishising their skin colour by slabbing myself in dark paint?'

For me, what it points to is a more subconscious reality - for white people, darker skinned people are only their skin colour. It's something that fascinates and obsesses them in a way that echoes the kind of Orientalist fantasy of the East. The brown and black body is an exotic projection, a way to unleash fears and fantasies, a body to claim and a mask to slip into to find or lose themselves.  

It's something I cannot understand or explain. When I dressed up as Gwyneth Paltrow for a Christmas party, it never occurred to me to use white paint on my brown skin. A blonde wig and a yoga mat was enough to depict her personality. That's because to me Gwyneth is not just her skin colour, she is a fully dimensional person (albeit with a wacky brand).

I can feel the eye-rolls and exasperated sighs of people when they are faced with the anger of people of colour protesting cultural theme and costume parties. 'Why can't we just have fun?' they seem to be saying. It's because we know these parties, which could be joyful homages, often end up with us being subject to the subconscious barely registered racism of the white majority.

The one person who showcases it is the one who invariably takes it too far with a garish caricature of what they think of us. It is usually a cartoonish caricature - a jungle, harem, China doll or snake charmer stereotype - with a good coat of black or brown paint that fascinates and delights them - "good harmless fun" for the parties brown people were never invited to. The thing is - today we are - and we're telling you - stop. 

Sarah Malik is the Deputy Editor of SBS Voices. You can follow Sarah on Twitter @sarahbmalik. 

It's time for Australia to boycott brown-face
Why is white Australia still peddling this primitive, backwards, blatantly racist activity?