Yesterday, most Canadians likely saw a photograph of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in brownface while a teacher at a Vancouver private school in 2001.
I’m not in any way surprised by the image.
And we are missing the point if this story becomes about Trudeau being unveiled as “a racist.” Let’s take this opportunity to think more deeply about the situation and what allows it to be so.
North American society is quite focused on identifying people as “racists” or “not racists.” Being called racist is considered one of the worst labels you could apply to someone. And yet, we all live, breathe and swim in a soup of structural racism reinforcing racist beliefs.
The reason for the crisis is that Trudeau’s image is one of a “good person” who identifies as feminist, welcomes immigrants, and preaches reconciliation. So his defenders rush to say he’s not a “racist,” because this is impossible for someone who is a “good person.”
The problem is that this dichotomization of racist and not racist with good and bad causes huge barriers to very important conversations that must happen about how our whole society is racist, and we have all been taught, and likely think and express, racist feelings and ideas.
We are constantly exposed to films, shows, books, ads, magazines, etc. that portray racialized people in two-dimensional ways, usually because people in positions of power in the institutions that produce them are unlikely to be themselves racialized.
And growing up as a cisgender, straight, able-bodied white male who was the son of a prime minister is pretty much the epitome of privilege. This by definition means Trudeau is probably the least surprising person to have engaged in something so insensitive.
This is not a means to excuse Trudeau’s white privilege or ignorance. Rather, it’s an important reflection of the society we live in, which has been intentionally created by those people in positions of power. Trudeau’s actions are a symptom of a much more dangerous disease.
Talking about Trudeau being exposed as a racist completely misses the point. Instead, we need a conversation about the structural and interpersonal racism that exists in this country, impacting the lives of racialized, especially Black and Indigenous people.
And while we’re at it, let’s talk about the structural white privilege that allows such actions, as it holds an implicit entitlement to the lives, culture, land and bodies of racialized people. (See: All of history).
In case it’s unclear where to begin, here are some things we can start to address to support the approximately 20 per cent of the Canadian population that is racialized.
- Disproportionate policing of racialized communities leading to criminalization.
- Disproportionately harsh sentencing for Black and Indigenous people.
- Disproportionate rates of Black and Indigenous children apprehended from their families. The last two contribute to ongoing intergenerational trauma through family separation.
- Immigration policies that keep migrants, especially Latinx, Black and Filipino, working in low-wage, precarious jobs with limited pathways to permanent immigration status and therefore “membership rights” in our country.
- Political spaces that continue to be disproportionately white and male, thereby shaping policies impacting the lives of racialized people through privileged lenses that don’t actually reflect our country.
- Media spaces that continue to be disproportionately white and male, especially in management, shaping the narratives we hear, often reinforcing harmful stereotypes and perpetuating interpersonal and structural biases.
- Barriers to employment, such as a lower likelihood of being interviewed if you have an “ethnic” sounding name, requirements of “Canadian experience” or barriers to career advancement because you don’t look like or sound like the people at the top.
- Corporate boardrooms that are disproportionately white and male, and powerful special interest groups that lobby to maintain the status quo or further entrench economic systems that disproportionately benefit white people.
- Health care spaces rampant with implicit bias that endangers the lives of racialized people (among various groups) who may not feel they can trust providers or systems to heal or care for them as they do for others.
- Economic policies that continue to worsen income inequality through corporate and personal tax policies that benefit the wealthiest among us, who due to the history of this country, are disproportionately white.
- Relationships with Indigenous communities that claim to be built on reconciliation while not engaging with them as equal partners deserving of rights over their land and lives, dignity, and basic services like clean water.
- Barriers to higher education due to increasing tuition rates that disproportionately exclude racialized people from entering halls of power and professions such as medicine and law, continuing the cycle.
Power begets power. Structural racism in our society is not an accident. Any cursory look at the history of colonization, cultural genocide of Indigenous people, restriction of immigration for “certain groups,” and active efforts to criminalize certain communities demonstrates this.
What we need is not more good intentions and learning the rules of what “is and is not offensive,” but for all people, especially white people, to understand the history and structures on which this country (and others like it) are built.
Those structures continue to exist and marginalize many among us, whether racialized people, immigrants, women, LGBTQ folks, people with disabilities or people living in poverty. Until we lift the veil of these power structures and work to fight them, nothing can change.
If you take one thing from this incident, let it be a commitment to examine our history, reflect on the ways you benefit from the current systems, and commit to working with those marginalized by them to break them down.