Farid Asey: Darkened white faces laughing no more—Trudeau's racist pics and the missed opportunity to have a real conversation about racism in Canada

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      By Farid Asey

      Barely five months ago, our charming and progressive prime minister, Justin Trudeau, made it to Time magazine’s prestigious list of 100 most influential people in the world. In fact, in her praise for Trudeau’s placement on the list, Jacinda Ardern, the equally delightful prime minister of New Zealand, wrote: “Youth alone is not remarkable, but winning over people with a message of hope and warmth, tolerance and inclusion, when other politicians the world over choose an easier route—that is remarkable.”

      Fast forwarding to last Wednesday, and boy, what a difference that five months make, eh! As you know, that is when the same Time magazine published pictures of Trudeau “wearing” brownface to an “Arabian Nights” party at a Vancouver private school in 2001. Other pictures and at least one video have since emerged that depict Mr. Trudeau engaging in demeaning, disparaging, and degrading acts that ridicule racialized Canadians.

      Firstly, what is remarkable is the muted response from other politicians. Andrew Scheer said a lot without saying anything; but I didn't expect much from him to begin with. Nonetheless, when a reporter asked Jagmeet Singh for his reaction to the controversial photos, he coyly responded “I wanna say who is the real Mr. Trudeau?”

      Forgive me Mr. Singh, but isn’t that an obvious question? Trudeau is a privileged and powerful white man—the Canadian rendition of the very fake prince he was reproducing—raised in the corridors of power and having enjoying preferential access to resources and prestige all throughout his life by virtue of his identity and connections.

      In stark contrast, Singh was raised in an immigrant Sikh family and is the only racialized political leader at the federal level. He has also reported having experienced the pain of racism and agony of discrimination in the flesh growing up in Central Canada. Therefore, his dull response was profoundly disappointing. But let us not divert attention from Trudeau and his dark photos that have now come to light, no pun intended.

      Like most other white Canadians, Trudeau claims that he did not know at the time that his actions were racist—a comfortable velvety claim to ignorance and, by implication, innocence. While this may have social purchase with white "old stock" Canadians, racialized minorities in Canada are literally sick and tired of hearing this lame excuse every time something discriminatory is said or done to them.

      There is no denying that Trudeau has marginally ameliorated racism in post-Harper Canada. The redemption for him, however, if he is after one, comes not in making reactionary antiracist statements and empty rhetorical apologies but in using this moment to rupture our collective silence on race talk in Canada. In other words, this is a perfect opportunity for him to put his powerful pulpit to good use and invite all Canadians to introspectively self-examine themselves for racist thoughts, beliefs, and actions.

      What transpired on Wednesday afternoon could offer significant possibilities for emancipatory conversations and social transformations. It is in that context that a consciousness-raising dialogue on the prevalence and proliferation of racism in Canada—one that could unmask white privilege, expose axes of systemic oppression, and debate intersecting forms of prejudice that are deeply embedded in our subtle practices and social imaginations—is what is most needed now. Claiming ignorance, on the other hand, would only serve to perpetuate the prevailing culture of silence and denial of racial hierarchies in Canada.

      Ultimately, the trouble lies not only in Trudeau’s racist pictures but also in our collective reluctance to engage in a meaningful dialogue about race relations and racism in Canada. Racism is not an abstraction; it is alive and well, operating in structures that work in tandem in sophisticated and interlocking networks that support, sustain, and defend systems of domination in this country. Thus, it is time to submit our uninterrogated pride in Canada’s purported tolerance of diversity to critical scrutiny and, to this end, let’s hope that Trudeau and other political leaders would break away with their obnoxious arrogance and help us talk racism in Canada while the reprehensible photos still have our attention.

      Farid Asey is a PhD Candidate in the University of Toronto's faculty of social work. He is studying racism in the B.C. public sector.