Blackface & Progressivism: Justin Trudeau’s Problematic Past

Written by Shivi Chauhan

In light of the increasingly conservative shift in modern politics, Justin Trudeau has painted himself as a progressive politician. His commitment to social justice, immigration reform, and gender equality are not only conveyed through his rhetoric but also through his actions. Trudeau and his party previously announced pay equity legislation aimed at closing the gender wage gap and during the “Muslim” ban instituted by the Trump administration, Trudeau openly declared Canada’s dedication to providing a safe haven for immigrants not welcome in the United States. However, this curated public persona as a champion of civil rights and societal equality is in stark contrast to the recent emergence of photos showing Trudeau donning Blackface upon several occasions.

In 2001, Trudeau attended a Halloween party dressed as Aladdin, complete with face paint and a turban. The photo was the first of a few to be released and led to Trudeau admitting he was not entirely aware of how many times he had worn Blackface in his life. The scandal broke nearly a month before the Canadian elections and was one of the few blows to Trudeau’s perfect, squeaky-clean image. Trudeau apologized for his transgressions, stating, “I stand here before Canadians as I will throughout this campaign and talk about the work we have to do to make a better country together… I am going to continue to stay focused on that and continue to work to fight intolerance and discrimination, even though obviously I made a mistake in the past.” The scandal failed to have any significant political repercussions for Trudeau, as he proceeded to win another term as Prime Minister, albeit through a smaller margin. All of this begs the question: to what degree should we be holding our leaders accountable for their actions? Is it enough for them to publicly support liberal stances on issues but then fail to recognize their own privilege and engage in racist behaviors? According to junior Spencer Caceda, the answer is no. “I find it troubling that someone so admired for his progressive agenda has such a dark past. It’s not only racist, it’s hypocritical,” Spencer stated. 

Prior to the pictures of Trudeau surfacing, Virginia Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment came under fire for publishing photos of students wearing blackface, Klu Klux Klan garb, and using the n-word along with other racial slurs in the Virginia Military Institute’s yearbook. Virginia Governor Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring also admitted to wearing blackface, and despite facing calls for resignation, they all remained put. As Democrats, Northam and Herring’s reputation did not take as much of a hit as Norment’s. “I think people have really looked on,” former Governor Terry McAuliffe (Northam’s predecessor) said. “I think people realize people may have made mistakes years ago as it relates to the governor. He’s been a good man.” A Washington Post poll affirmed McAuliffe’s assertion, as Northam’s approval rating remained at a solid 47%. Norment, on the other hand, failed to take responsibility for his actions, which led to his approval rating falling a significant amount. Is it that we are more lenient towards left-leaning politicians for engaging in racist behavior? The Trudeau and Virginia scandals seem to suggest so. Freshman and Canada-native Andrew Queen reasons, “What Trudeau did was definitely wrong and although age is not an excuse for ignorance, seeing Trudeau’s actions and plans really indicated what his values are and his support for minority groups. I don’t think one choice he made when he was younger should eliminate all the progress he’s made to support minorities in Canada.” Should Trudeau’s progressive legislation and commitment to racial equality grant him leniency in his behavior? Are we, as voters and constituents, excusing racist actions by keeping these politicians in office? Or are we simply giving them the benefit of the doubt, assuming they have grown and learned from their past mistakes? The Canadian people seem to agree with the latter.

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