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.

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