Trudeau’s blackface problem and casual antisemitism

The incidents of racism are now being dismissed as just some mistakes made in the 1990s and early 2000s, long after the wearing of blackface was widely known to be racist and offensive.

(photo credit: REUTERS)
A 2001 private school photo of a beaming Justin Trudeau has caused controversy in Canada because the future prime minister was wearing blackface. It now turns out that Canada’s leader, and son of former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, may have regularly worn the theatrical makeup.
The incidents of racism are now being dismissed as just some mistakes made in the 1990s and early 2000s, long after the wearing of blackface was widely known to be racist and offensive. It has revealed a darker side of Canada, where coexistence and tolerance on the surface gives way to ingrained racist tropes and attitudes that are hidden through virtue-signaling and critiquing the more virulent racism south of the border.
Trudeau’s blackface problem has centered now on his own responses, but it should lead to larger questions about why elite private schools and even colleges seem to have regularly had events where dressing up as people of color was the norm for members of the largely white upper class. Despite articles that assert that Trudeau’s blackface “shocked guests,” they don’t seem particularly shocked, as some smile while he basks with several women in one photo or poses with other guests.
It wasn’t shocking. It was too often the norm, and it was too common, particularly among the privileged who felt that people of color from other continents, those immigrants that Canada ostensibly prides itself on accepting and integrating, were also to be objects of fun and mocking – as long as you came from certain circles. After all, Trudeau wore the blackface as a school teacher, sending a message to students that this was OK.
Some media have tried to argue that this is a “non-issue” by saying it happened 20 years ago when “sensibilities” were different. Were they different? I was at university in 2001 and we didn’t wear blackface. The argument “he did it in his twenties,” is an interesting excuse, as if somehow the cut-off for some racist behavior is now maybe in one’s thirties. Oddly, the twenties cutoff didn’t work for Kyle Kashuv, a Parkland shooting survivor whose racist online comments while in high school lost him a shot at Harvard. But Trudeau is no Kashuv, and for many Canadian supporters, he needs to be protected from accusations of racism. That’s the narrative being put forward to shield Trudeau. An article at The Guardian notes that no one “really believes Justin Trudeau is a racist.”
We live in a world in which we want racism neatly packaged into the “bad racists” and the casual “whoops I was a racist 20 years ago” racists. In the former camp are the right-wing racists, the easy and often clichéd ones: the skinheads, neo-Nazis and their fellow travelers. On the other side are those who “make mistakes.” It is a reminder that the same Guardian that ran the op-ed noting that no one thinks Trudeau is a racist, also ran an article titled “Remove hook-nose sign language gesture, Jewish group demands.”
Interesting: I didn’t even know that sign language uses a hook-nose gesture to indicate “Jew.” It turns out that it is one of those examples of everyday, widespread hatred of Jews that exist in society and that, even in 2019, we are just deciding “might” be a problem. It turns out that an online dictionary of Flemish sign language uses a nose gesture to refer to “the Jews.” The article revealed that New Zealand, another country that prides itself on “tolerance,” also has numerous racist sign language portrayals of minorities. And they also use a nose gesture to refer to “Jews.” They have other racist gestures for Chinese people.
ON THE SURFACE, the linkage between Trudeau’s blackface and the hook-nose sign language isn’t obvious. What both issues reveal is how deep and ingrained racist views of “the other” permeate societies from Canada to New Zealand, even societies where the official line is “tolerance” and “diversity.” The problem in society when one repeats the mantra of “we are tolerant” – without first subjecting the self to a rigorous critique of ingrained stereotypes – is that we end up preaching to others about “racism” without first admitting our own.
White supremacy has too often given way to moral supremacism in many Western societies, leaping directly from the Holocaust to lecturing the world about “human rights” without even apologizing for the worst crimes of the 20th century. This is a kind of moral supremacy that seeks to inure these societies from deeper questions about how deep and widespread its racist and antisemitic views are.
It used to be that when we said “that was decades ago,” it was in the 1990s talking about the 1950s, some bygone era of lynchings. But it’s not some bygone era. Interracial marriage was illegal in many US states up until the 1967 Supreme Court ruling. At least two US presidential candidates this year were in their twenties when it was still illegal for a black and white person to marry. Imagine that: This is within living memory. Now we pretend that some racist incidents in the 1990s was “long ago.”
It wasn’t long ago. I was in my teens in those years. Unfortunately, societies too often have not even interrogated themselves about racism and antisemitism, preferring instead to just move rapidly on to claiming to be “diverse” societies where we are “opposed to racism.” Yes, we are officially opposed. And then we have a member of a city council in Washington DC, who believes the “Rothschilds” control the weather. And our response is to “educate” him by taking him to the Holocaust Museum. Because he “made a mistake.”
How many racist mistakes, racist hand gestures and racist sign language – and swastikas on bathroom, stalls, war graves and everywhere else – do you need before it’s not a mistake? It’s just the norm, and we just cover it up and say, “we aren’t a racist society” and “no one believes that our political leader who wore blackface is racist.”
 It’s not that hard not to wear blackface. It’s quite easy, really. It’s not that hard to not use a hook-nose hand gesture to indicate “the Jews.” It’s just that we have societies that prefer to talk about racism all the time and then claim that most examples of racism are “mistakes” – so long as those doing it are members of the correct society or the correct political camp. After all, Megyn Kelly was ousted from NBC for comments that appeared to defend blackface. The governor of Virginia wore blackface in the 1980s. But that was, as they say, years ago.