The Scandal Around Trudeau’s Blackface Represents Our Politics Today

How the past is never truly forgotten

Photo by Joy Real on Unsplash

Unless you have been living under a rock for the past week, you will have undoubtedly seen the scandal that has been enveloping the incumbent Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Photos and videos have emerged of Trudeau donning ‘brownface’ and ‘blackface’ when he was a student and teacher.

The incidents have come to light at an unfortunate time for Trudeau who is in the middle of a campaign to get re-elected as Canada prepares to head to the polls on October 21.

Since his election in 2015, Trudeau has carefully crafted a public image that presents him as a modernising and tolerant figure. The discovery of these images has shattered that persona.

The discovery of the images presents a challenge for Trudeau in his attempts to win re-election, but they also pose another question. One of how we react to incidents in the past in the lives of our politicians.

Like Trudeau, we will all have made mistakes in the past, but unlike Trudeau, we are not held to scrutiny and a high standard daily.

The scandal raises the fundamental question of how high a standard we hold our politicians to and whether this is beneficial or not.

Past Mistakes

There is no doubt that what Trudeau did was wrong. To do it once can be put down to a misjudgement, however, to do it on three separate occasions shows a lack of understanding of the implications of what one was doing.

Trudeau has come out and apologised for his actions, which is about all he can do at this stage. He will not have expected this story to come out, and it’s likely we would have forgotten all about it.

There is no doubt it is damaging to his chances of getting re-elected and it does not paint him in a good light either. This is a man who has spoken openly about his love for diversity and multiculturalism, these photos are a slap in the face to the people he has been championing the past four years.

His rival candidates have seized upon this development by tweeting their revulsion at Trudeau’s actions. This follows on from tactics from Trudeau’s Liberal party which had smeared a number of members of the rival Conservative Party.

Here is the leader of the Green Party of Canada, Elizabeth May’s response:

The leader of the New Democratic Party, Jagmeet Singh was similarly unimpressed.

While Trudeau’s main rival, Andrew Scheer, the leader of the Conservative Party was scathing in his assessment of the incident.

The condemnation of Trudeau’s past actions is to be expected from his political rivals. It is a quick win for all of them and serves to strengthen their hand against the incumbent PM.

Not to say that it is easy to condemn behaviour such as this which is grotesque and racist. However, I want to look at the scandal from a different angle.

Is the level of outrage now in 2019, appropriate for actions that took place 18 years ago? Yes, it’s unedifying to see the face of a world leader covered in black make-up, but is it relevant today?

Should every past discretion be put under the microscope, or should we take a step back and assess the whole situation before jumping to conclusions?

Trump and Trudeau

The first thing that springs to mind with these accusations is the behaviour of the President in the neighbouring USA. President Trump has said and done a lot of things during his campaigning and tenure as President, yet he still remains in charge and is able to shake it off with seeming ease.

No can forget his crass remarks about grabbing women by the pussy, but it didn’t derail his Presidential campaign. He can even openly lie about what he has said and the repercussions are minimal.

Perhaps the difference lies in the public image of the two men. Trump almost plays up to his image as a Teflon Don. It’s as if he is inviting the media to challenge and give it their best shot to take him down.

Trudeau, on the other hand, has carefully cultivated a public image of himself as a ‘woke’ president, declaring himself a feminist and openly welcoming refugees from Syria in stark contrast to Trump.

There has been little dirt on him during his reign, such was his popularity that he was even likened to a Disney Prince! When these pictures emerged, his rivals must have been rubbing their hands with glee!

Here was Trudeau wearing black make-up on his face, which is racist and demeaning in anyone’s book. Christmas came early for his rivals.

As awful as the pictures are and the undoubted racist overtones they portray, do we have an issue with how we view our politicians? They are not robots, they can and will have made mistakes.

The difference between Trump and Trudeau is that one man has apologised for his mistakes, while another is brazen and often denies they took place at all.

It’s a tough line we have to walk as no one is perfect least of all those under constant and intense scrutiny. Do we hold politicians to such an impossibly high standard, that any slight wrong move will be pounced upon by rivals as signs they are not fit for office?

The Past Is Always Present

Trudeau wore ‘blackface’ in 2001 when he dressed as Aladdin while attending a function at the private school he worked at. He was 29 at the time, which disqualifies the argument of he didn’t know what he was doing.

He will have been old enough to realise this what a good idea and it constituted racism. From this, he has no excuse.

However, this was 18 years ago. He is not the same person he was then. He is human after all, we all make mistakes. We all have episodes that we are not proud of. The difference is that most of us do not live our lives under a microscope where every facet of our lives past and present is scrutinised.

This is a trend in politics, where leaders are forced to apologise for events that took place when they were not public servants. During the Conservative Party leadership race in England this year, a number of candidates apologised for using drugs during their early years.

A lot of these events happened over 20 years ago. These are single moments in a person’s life. We cannot ask them to look ahead into the future and consider whether this may or may not be a good idea because they may go into politics one day.

These events are a snapshot in time. We are using the benefit of hindsight to condemn these people and preach that we are holier than thou when we all have skeletons in the closet.

I’m sure you could pull up dirt on every politician on the planet if you wanted. If we forced them all out because of past indiscretions we would have none left.

There is nothing wrong with making mistakes, it’s an intrinsic part of being human. The question we need to ask is whether we learn from these mistakes or not.

Trudeau states he is deeply sorry for his actions and we have to take that at face value. I’m sure these are events he regrets and he must wish he had never worn the make-up in the first place.

But we need to be careful about how high on the pedestal we place figures in public life. They are human like us, no matter how much we build them up, they can and will have made mistakes before entering public life.

The question we need to ask of Trudeau and others in these situations is whether they are sorry for their actions, or whether they are sorry that they came to light.

Only then, can we make a well-rounded judgement on the character of that individual and whether they deserve our scorn or not.

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