Some thoughts on Justin Trudeau’s brownface controversy and saying sorry

By Hungary’s exceedingly low standards when it comes to accountability and political civility, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau should be commended for what did seem like a heartfelt and unequivocal apology for having appeared in brownface in 2001, when he was a teacher at Westpoint Point Grey Academy in Vancouver. It is nearly inconceivable to imagine that a politician in Hungary would take any responsibility for his or her past actions–nor would allied partisan media so much as cover the controversy–the way in which Mr. Trudeau did when he said, immediately after the damning brownface photo surfaced in Time magazine:

In 2001, when I was a teacher in Vancouver, I attended a gala. The theme was Arabian Nights. 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.

“I take responsibility for my decision to do that. I shouldn’t have done it. I should have known better. It was something that I didn’t think was racist at the time, but now I recognize it was something racist to do and I am deeply sorry.”

Justin Trudeau appearing in brownface in a 2001 Yearbook.

I would estimate that most Hungarians do not truly comprehend the depravity of both brownface and blackface. It is within Anglo-American or Angosaxon culture that historical experience, especially that of minstrel shows, signals to us the perverted nature of the racial mockery that is inherent in brownface and blackface. Intrinsically, I cringe when I see stomach churning productions like minstrel shows such as this one posted on YouTube.

Mr. Trudeau was nearly 30 years old when he painted his face brown and dressed up in an Aladdin costume. And he did this in 2001, not in 1941. Quite simply put, there are no excuses. He also never owned up to this until the photograph surfaced. He and the Liberal Party failed to showed mercy or forgiveness when Conservative politicians were caught with embarrassing racist, homophobic or other insensitive comments from their past — comments often dug up by Liberal opposition research operatives. This is about more than a lack of judgment, as Conservative leader Andrew Scheer quickly and not incorrectly pointed out when the photograph surfaced in the very middle of the Canadian federal election campaign. It’s really about the fundamental insensitivity that comes with the entitlement that Mr. Trudeau undoubtedly had as a young man — and still enjoys.

At present, before the impact of this bombshell revelation begins to sink in, the CBC poll tracker has Mr. Trudeau’s Liberal Party and the Conservatives tied (at 34.2% and 34.4% respectively) with the Liberals on track to win the most seats in parliament (an estimated 169 versus 137 for the Conservatives). It’s hard to imagine that this revelation will not change those numbers in favour of other parties, with perhaps some left-leaning Liberal voters giving the New Democratic Party or the Green Party a second look. But at the end of the day, from a principled perspective, this should not be about polls. It should very much be about accountability for past actions, of media reporting honestly on the behaviour of politicians even when they are on the same side of the political spectrum and also of a little more humility in politics.

11 Comments

  1. Actions speak louder than costume balls. Trudeau has demonstrated unequivocally, and in stark contrast to corrupt, bigoted, affinity fraudsters like Trump, Orbán, who pry on the ill-informed, where he stands on cultural and ethnic diversity, before, during and after the Syrian refugee crisis. Why not ban Halloween, and give detentions to all the kids who go out into the streets trick-or treating by the hundreds of thousands every year and in all kinds of outlandish costumes foisted upon them by their parents? Why not ban someone from politics, for having donned a Frankenstein costume on the grounds that this shows insensitivity to violence? Why not condemn someone who dresses like Jesus an antisemite? How bout the kid who dresses like a chipmunk? Will he be dressed down by the animal rights activists? What say ye, prof Harnad? Must we all wear fig leaves, to qualify as politically correct? (I pass – I’m a carrot top  ) One can find plenty of faults with the policies of the Canadian Liberal Party. If Justin Trudeau’s performance at an „Arabian Nights” costume ball is to be the reason for his one way ticket to hell, Canadians deserve to follow him there.

    Could we focus in reality rather than illusion? Could we deal with the enormous problems facing this country and humanity and judge our politicians on the basis of how they are working for justice, the rule of law, sustainable development, rather than on what they wear at a costume party?

    • I wonder if your reaction would have been the same if a Trump picture at a costume party, wearing blackface would have surfaced instead? Or how about a conservative Canadian politician? How about Oooorban? I smell some heavy-duty Golner hypocrisy on this one!

      As for Trudeau and his response to this? He did a great deal to contribute to the promovation of precisely the cultural trend you just criticized, the moment he said it was “racist” of him to paint his face. He is taking Canada and its culture to hell, because he could not resist not turning this into an opportunity to engage in some virtue signaling. From now on, all this “i’m offended by everything and anything” will get a lot worse in Canada, thanks to the precedent he just set by his mea culpa moment.

      It also exposes him for being completely spineless. Honestly, I would have been impressed if he would have said, “hey I did not think it was wrong then, and I don’t think it is any more wrong than wearing any other costume, sometimes with paint on the face now”. Now that would have been newsworthy!

  2. I have to say that even as recently as 2001, this type of thing was not viewed as racist even here in Canada. Only when it has created conversation about it did people determine it was. Especially at Halloween it became a conversation in most recent years about racial costumes and the insensitivity surrounding them. I’ve been an Indian and a gypsy for Halloween too and only now would find this racist, because it has been determined that by the people it is depicting. I’m not racist in the slightest way and I’m sorry too if I ever offended anyone! What I find ridiculous in all of this, is that the conservatives found this to create a scandal during an election and you as well as others are eating it up, not because you don’t accept the apology or truly believe Trudeau is a racist because of his choice in costume from 18 years ago but more because you WANT the scandal to affect the election! I say let’s focus on the real CURRENT issues taking place with the candidates and not fall into the silly games.

  3. While I do not think very highly of Trudeau, I have to say that the worst aspect in all of this is that he apologized and characterized his own behavior as “racist”, thus helping to continue feeding the PC monster. It was a costume party! I am sure that what Trudeau had in mind more than anything was being in character, including racially speaking. ME people are mostly darker in color than Trudeau, so he must have figured that painting his face will complement the costume he was wearing.

    Racism: It is a concept, which has been so so denatured from its original meaning! Racism means one’s perception of racial superiority of one group over another. The things that people get called “racist” for these days, has become a cultural mass-perversion!

    No, Hungarian politicians would not apologize for a similar thing, because they cater to a society which was shielded from the on-set of the PC socio-cultural dictatorship, thus most people in Hungary have some common sense left in this regard.

    Halloween is coming! Should all Transylvanian Hungarians feel offended? People will attend parties dressed as Vampires. Some of them will even paint their face pale, perhaps even some people of color! How about Central Europeans in General? After all, movies costumes and so on, portray the area as a classical place of monsters!

    Lets all find reasons to get offended!

  4. Not a fan of Mr. Trudeau but making a big deal of a costume party is nonsense. Portraying a character from the story of Aladin is something that is done all the time. Check your Disney store one can find many outfits for Jasmin, Aladin and all sort of story time characters.

    Friends from Korea brought kimonos as presents for the children. The children enjoyed dressing up and still do to this day. The family does not feel that it appropriated another culture.

    Canada has bigger problems than policing costume parties, it is time to leave this stupidity where it belongs, in the US.

  5. Eliezer RABINOVICH says:

    It is a full loss of mind and freedom to the extreme political correctness to feel guilty and apologize for a costume party in 2001. We loose ourselves with these rebukes and apologies.

  6. @ Liz

    Well said. Customs and mores change over time. I confess to having once dressed as one of the 7 dwarfs who supposedly hung out with Snow White. There is even a picture of me on my grandfather’s knee when I did that. I was three years old. (If anyone out there among the dwarfs is insulted, please contact Joe in this underpass.)

    The problem with Trudeau is that he is a thorn in the side of the radical Left, as well as the trolls that are busy working for the authoritarian fraud artists on the Right like Orbán, Erdogan, Bolsonaro, Trump, etc, (neo-fascists who are miss-called as populists by the ignorant).

    This new “crisis” is the latest example of the political language of cyber-Capitalism, and the drive to erase the boundary between illusion and reality by the folks who specialize in affinity-fraud. It’s a great distraction, mana for CNN, and all those who will chew on this for weeks, instead of focusing on the challenges we face to justice, the rule of law and sustainable economic development by the criminals like Orbán, his piano playing Canadian ambassador, Bálint Odor, (aka Mr. Smelly)

    Mr. Trudeau should get on with it and show us what he’s really made of. It’s the head of the NDP who should apologize to Canadian Social Democrats for falling for this kind of diversion.

  7. Hungarian politicians would not even recognize that this is a racist act. Racism is so ingrained in the Hungarian psyche that this just seems normal behavior.

  8. Really. The article written by Adam begins with earnest moral tone (no harm in that). By the paragraph where he trots out the phrase ‘brownface depravity’ comes the point at which one begins to feel distinctly ‘queasy’.
    I am afraid this choice of casual elision serves only to fuel the casual xenophile that is antithetical to rabid contagion.

  9. Sharon Szmolyan says:

    The Canada I grew up in was known worldwide as a country that stood for diversity; as a result, the daughter of a ’56 Hungarian refugee I listened to conversations in Hungarian that reflected a diversity of opinions. No one we knew had to give up their name as they entered Canada.

    None of those conversations brought friendships to an end.

    There was a real regard for the value of evolving in a country you were to eventually call home, where you had the opportunity to bring up your children not burdened by the ‘sins of the fathers’ (and mothers, if we want to establish full equality).

    My father, as I did growing up as I did in the 80’s and 90’s wore the costumes of sailors, of farmers, of Hasidic Jews at costume parties; the symbolic bead work of the Blackfoot nation is still something I take great pride in wearing.

    That we were to know then that identity politics would consume the possibility of real conversations, the possibility of tackling very real world problems would we have done, or would we do anything different than apologize to those who feel offended?

    I ask my friends: Arabs, Jews, Persians, farmers, scholars, women who have retired from careers to raise their children what they’re concerned about.
    Not one of them has said ‘Justin Trudeau’s brownface’.

    So, let’s get real; we can apologize if or because we have offended someone, somewhere, somehow.

    Taking responsibility and acknowledging that we may have offended someone, somewhere, somehow is what we learn to do as members of a civil society. And it is this civility in society that makes democracy successful. An apology underscores the capacity of civic actors to promote participation in the public realm; it is what constitutes and builds the necessary faith in the value of a diverse culture and society.

    It is I believe, how we as Canadians deal with some of our nation’s very messy history. Respectfully, an apology has never done anyone any harm.

  10. @ Joe

    If Donald Trump puts black-face on in order to pay homage, with words and actions, to the teachings of the great Martin Luther King Jr, if he walks a mile in his shoes and those of Malcolm X, if he dons the skirt of Rosa Parks, as he chases the neo-Nazi, white supremacist scum out of American politics, if he dresses like a drag queen, on his way to banning the guns that murder Jews, gays, queers, muslims, I will be as tolerant of his theatrics as those good natured ones exhibited by young Justin Trudeau. If either of them puts black face on to popularize the practices of the racially motivated minstrel showmen who did so to brutalize, degrade, make fun of black Americans, I will condemn them. As for you, Joe, you should brush up on your spelling, especially when you address me by name.

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