Editor’s Note: Janaya Khan is an activist, writer and storyteller based in Los Angeles who lectures on racial justice, culture and gender equity across the US and abroad. Janaya has appeared in Vogue, The Cut and BET’s Finding Justice and serves as Program Director for Color Of Change. They can be found on Twitter @janaya_khan. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the author. View more opinion at CNN.
For Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, blackface is a mere obstacle to overcome in his campaign run after receiving rebukes this week for darkening his face several times in the past. But for the millions of black, Indigenous and other people of color in Canada, this is far more than a simple scandal. Blackface is a reminder that people of color are still considered to be ‘characters’ instead of equal and full human beings.
To put on blackface is to be contemptuous of other people’s pain. To take on the appearance of one’s skin, but none of the suffering endured as a result of racism, makes a mockery of our experiences. It demeans who we are as people. And the infuriating reality is that Canada’s denial of its own racism, the very same racism present in the overwhelmingly white, elite and privileged spheres where Trudeau apparently learned that blackface was acceptable, makes it impossible to change in any meaningful way.
As a child, I was taught that Canada was a country of freedom, multiculturalism and diversity. But as I grew up in the streets of Toronto, my material realities and experiences did not match that narrative. Police brutality, overrepresentation in foster care, astronomical expulsion rates in Toronto and an overrepresentation in Canadian federal prisons overall are all a part of what it means to be black in Canada. Yet, when I describe these realities to people, they immediately associate these qualities with the US. Living in America has brought home for me just how pervasive this myth – that the racism embodied in blackface is an American problem – has become.
And no one embodies the myth of Canada as a racial haven more than Trudeau. The way he presents himself and the way he practices his policies and politics are not consistent.
One Trudeau is an international darling. Across North America and abroad, he is seen as the feminist, diversity-championing, bhangra-dancing, Ramadan-celebrating Liberal Party leader of the north who is the polar opposite of President Donald Trump, and a dig to the perpetuity of American injustice.
The other Trudeau is one very different from the pristine bastion of justice he presents himself to be. This Trudeau had a few people of color, but no black people in his original cabinet and has only appointed one since, despite the urgent need for more black leadership in Canada. This Trudeau recently made a sarcastic remark to Indigenous activists and apologized for it. This Trudeau cannot definitively give a count on how many times he’s worn blackface.
The thing with blackface is that it is always intentional. The choice is part of the privilege. Trudeau, despite his apologies since the photos of him came to light, chose to do blackface. The consequences of that choice, however, will be felt most by people who don’t look like him. People who, too often, do not get to choose. People who will have to endure unsolicited remarks on their complexion in their places of worship; people who suddenly find themselves locked into furious debates on the merits of Trudeau at work, and arguments on whether or not racism is even real from people who have never picked up a book on racial justice and who certainly weren’t taught about it in any meaningful way in the Canadian educational system. Kids, who are still developing a sense of identity, will suddenly be made to carry the tremendous weight of racism as they are forced to make the impossible decision between betraying who they are to fit in, or being alienated and broken-hearted.
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Despite the hideousness of racism, there is a persistent notion that we should get over it and move on. That is what Trudeau and much of Canada seem ready to do. Move on. Trudeau may feel that he has apologized for this wrongdoing and that should be enough. But what we need now is action. Canada can no longer pretend to be perfect any more than Trudeau can, and Canadians must decide what kind of country they are behind the mask.