Trudeau’s blackface scandal exposes the casual racism on both sides of the political spectrum – Thursday’s think piece

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Three images of Canadian PM Justin Trudeau in black/brownface have been released within 24 hours today. Let’s explore how this latest blackface scandal once again exposes the long and troubled history of black caricatures being used for entertainment.

Pictures emerged yesterday of the then 29-year-old Canadian premier dressed as ‘Aladdin’ for a 2001 party at the private school he was teaching at. Trudeau appeared to have applied dark makeup to his face, neck and hands whilst dressed in stereotypical Arabian garb. The PM apologised for his actions after the first photograph was released, calling them “racist”, and saying he “regret it deeply”, only for an image and a video from two other occasions to be released shortly afterwards, both of which depicting Trudeau portraying stereotypically black features.

The roots of this problem can be traced back to minstrel shows, the once hugely popular form of entertainment. Originating in 19th century America, they consisted of white actors and musicians wearing offensive makeup such as black faces and exaggerated red lips to mock African-American slaves.

Although its popularity waned by the 20th century, minstrelsy still had a prominent profile within show-business, and was frequently used in films and cartoons during the Hollywood era, with everyone from Judy Garland to Fred Astaire performing with blackened faces.  

For the younger generation, the usage of blackface seems baffling and inconceivable, but the civil rights movement of the 1960s ushered in an uncommonly rapid change in societal values. Over the course of a generation or two, blackface went from a massively popular entertainment institution to a pervasive taboo. That kind of shift is bound to cause a clash in values.

Minstrelsy is not just a North American problem, either. In 1963, the British ‘Black and White Minstrel Show’ was racking up 16.5 million viewers, nearly a third of the population at the time. The programme was so popular that white men with black makeup on their faces were screened nationally until 1978, when the show was cancelled.

The Trudeau scandal is an opportunity for international reflection, especially for those of European descent. The derogatory portrayal and exploitation of black people is a part of history we cannot ignore, and by consigning it to the past we invalidate the very real influence it still has on society. If a supposedly liberal Prime Minister displayed blatantly racist behaviour less than twenty years ago, how can we trust the integrity of those who claim to stand up for minority rights? Racism is now, more clearly than ever, a bipartisan issue.

Written by Max Ingleby

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