I don’t like to say I told you so — I bloody love it. Lo, a whole 19 months ago, I wrote on Coffee House that there was something iffy about Justin Trudeau’s behaviour on an official visit to India:
‘He turned up for one event in a gaudy golden kurta, churidars and chappals. At another, he broke into the traditional Bhaṅgṛā dance only to stop midway through when no one else joined in. Only after the local press pointed out that this was a little condescending and a lot tacky was Justin-ji finally photographed wearing a suit.
‘It was less like a state visit and more like a weeklong audition for the next Sanjay Leela Bhansali movie. Here was Justin Trudeau, the progressive’s progressive, up to his pagṛi in cultural appropriation. At least he achieved his goal of bringing Indians and Canadians closer together: both have spent the past week cringing at this spectacle of well-meaning minstrelsy.’
Those in sway to his chiselled-cheek wokeness would have none of it. But now a photograph has emerged of Trudeau grinning in brownface at a high school party. Not his own high school, mind, but West Point Grey Academy, the private school where he worked as a teacher. In 2001. Aged 29. The occasion was an ‘Arabian Nights’ themed party and we can only hope he didn’t compound his offence by misgendering Ali Baba or any of the Forty Thieves. Trudeau has issued a sombre apology — there is an election on, after all — in the course of which he admitted to blacking up back in his own high school days, donning ‘make-up’ to perform Harry Belafonte’s ‘Day-O’. Lawdy.
Now a video has come to light, also showing him in blackface. What this will mean for his re-election chances nationwide is anyone’s guess but at least he’ll sweep Quebec. In one regard, this is all fair game. Over the weekend, Trudeau’s Liberals and their media allies went in hard on Tory candidates’ racially-charged social media posts. Tory leader Andrew Scheer, level-pegging with Trudeau in the polls, has professed himself ‘extremely shocked and disappointed’ in the man whose job he sorely wants.
In another regard, a shard of sympathy pierces even the darkest heart when Trudeau is quoted as telling reporters:
‘The fact of the matter is that I’ve always... been more enthusiastic about costumes than is sometimes appropriate.’
You’ve got to hand it to the Canadians: they find new things to apologise for every day. Still, Trudeau has never indicated any kind of hostility or prejudice towards minorities, so we might conclude that he didn’t intend to demean or humiliate anyone by his actions.
That is probably so, because that is not how Trudeau operates. When he painted his face, he wasn’t intending to degrade the sort of people he was mimicking — quite the opposite. He thought he was demonstrating how at ease he was with those from very different backgrounds to his own. Just as when he donned every inch of Indian garb he could find 19 months ago, he was saying: ‘Look how chill I am, how progressive; I’ve taken the time to learn all your tics and foibles and cute little customs.’ It’s not racism, per se, but more precisely the transgressive boundary-pushing of someone who thinks himself progressive enough to justify it. Bizarre as it sounds, Trudeau probably thought he was being self-deprecating.
If this seems at odds with his enlightened politics, understand that Trudeaupian liberalism is not about equality but about the benevolence of the educated, monied tiers of society towards the downtrodden. They’re doing you a favour. This right-on snobbery had much more to do with Trudeau’s dress-up choices than the bogeyman of ‘white privilege’. The forms of privilege at work here are the ones that still matter most: class, income and opportunity. The three are intimately linked, especially in the case of Trudeau, the privately-educated scion of a political dynasty. An elite education and family connections have been the making of many a mediocrity. Trudeau has slogged his way through these obstacles too. Whatever you think of the man, he’s got where he is today by working his father’s name to the bone.
Macerate in this environment long enough and you end up viewing others as dear pets, to dance for your enjoyment and be mimicked — with high irony, of course — to telegraph your egalitarian cool. Justin Trudeau isn’t a racist; he’s a spoiled rich kid aching to belong.