I am unequivocally against anyone’s painting his/her face black or in any other way drawing attention to any identifiable trait or characteristic of any traditionally oppressed people.
That said, the word “blackface” is being incorrectly and unfairly used in Canada.
The decades old photo of Justin Trudeau, sticking out his tongue while dressed as Ali Baba has resurrected use of the word “blackface”, now used as a war whoop by many Canadians. They conflate Mr. Trudeau’s costume during an Arabian Nights Day at a Vancouver school with the racist minstrel shows of the early twentieth century.
“Blackface” was a minstrel show practice that white people used to condescendingly caricature the black race. In its earliest iterations, blackface was used to portray black people as happy, obedient, underlings – as cheerfully, intellectually challenged – and thus, rightfully subservient.
Justin Trudeau didn’t do that. He wore a costume. Wearing a costume is trying to resemble an individual. Dressing up like Ali Baba with turban, bangles and physical traits is not blackface, it’s a costume.
When the photos came out, Mr. Trudeau correctly judged that trying to explain the nuances between “blackface” and wearing a costume was a losing proposition, as alt woke screams of racism filled the airwaves. He also recognized that our modern lens should probably not tolerate even plausible explanations – better to just stay away from making any distinction.
So, Mr. Trudeau expressed regret, unequivocally apologized, said he should have known better and that this wasn’t the kind of thing he wanted to be known for. Fair enough, although it made little difference to those who still insist that wearing an Ali Baba costume in the 1990s is tantamount to holding apartheid sentiments.
Trudeau also didn’t even try the “it was a different time” explanation.
It was doomed to the “such racism was wrong then, it’s wrong now, and it will always be wrong you racist pig” chorus.
But it was a different time. Consider.
Most B.C. high schools, even up to the 1960s had a “Slave Day” when students and teachers bought a “slave” to carry their books, and otherwise do their bidding for an afternoon. The activity was unanimously popular with student councils everywhere, and most were shocked when they heard that anyone could see Slave Day as in some way inappropriate. To them, Slave Day had nothing to do with racism.
But over time it became clear that Slave Day, regardless of its motive, was tone deaf and unacceptable – like painting one’s face black to complete a costume. But we had to evolve into that consciousness – it was a different time.
So now, we use the word “blackface” as a cudgel, to decry racism.
It has joined an arsenal of misleading political expressions like “Pro life”, “Right to Work”, “School Choice, and most ironically, “woke.”
Should Justin Trudeau have darkened his face as a part of his costume? No.
Does it mean he was a racist pig then and is still a racist pig? No.
Is it something that draws his judgement into question? No.
“Blackface” was more than colouring one’s face – it was much more
iniquitous. To conflate blackface with wearing a costume minimizes its moral turpitude.