All the reasons I didn’t want to write about Trudeau’s blackface scandal 

OPINION: Writing about race and privilege means thinking carefully about complicated, essential things — and then sharing them with a whole lot of people unwilling to listen
By Nam Kiwanuka - Published on Sep 25, 2019
Justin Trudeau
Justin Trudeau speaks to media during a scrum on his campaign plane in Halifax, on September 18. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

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I am reluctant to write this.

Last week, when the news broke that Justin Trudeau had worn blackface, I was absently scrolling through my phone as I waited for my children to brush their teeth before bedtime. My mood must have shifted, because the kids noticed. I quickly read the Time bombshell and plugged my phone in to recharge beside my bed. It was time to read a bedtime story. That night, it was The Three Bears and Goldilocks. I tried to focus on my children and on the cherished routine, but my six-year-old noticed the change in my energy.

“Momma, what’s wrong? Is it your belly?” she asked. When she gets stressed or overwhelmed, she tells me that her belly hurts.

“Do you know who Justin Trudeau is?” I asked. My eight-year-old son responded, “He’s the prime minister.” I showed them the picture in the Time article and tried to explain what was happening. My daughter said, “Why does his skin look like that? His skin is supposed to be peach.” My son said, “It’s like he’s making fun of us.”

Hearing that broke me, and I began to cry.

I am reluctant to write this, and this is why.

I spoke to my children awhile longer, and all I felt was disappointment and fatigue. Disappointment because this is a prime minister who proclaims himself a feminist and a champion for diversity and yet has worn blackface so many times that he can’t even say how many other pictures could be floating around. Fatigue because, while this should be an opportunity to have an honest conversation about what it’s like to live as a person in Canada who is not white, there’s so much resistance to really hearing about that experience.

I can speak only for myself: as a mixed-race person of African descent, I understand that my light-coloured eyes and light skin have provided me with opportunities I otherwise might not have had. I recognize that I have what has become known as “light-skinned privilege.” Yet if, as a person of colour, I'm able to reflect on that, why is it so difficult for others to have conversations about what white privilege looks like? I know that I haven’t experienced discrimination as severe as my brothers have. I know that, when I was a teenager, I was able to find jobs more easily than my brothers. I’ve seen first-hand how bigotry can affect one’s mental health and ambition.

But what is the point of writing about these stories if we can’t be honest? Especially given that, when you share, others demand that you prove beyond a reasonable doubt that what happened to you was, indeed, racist. Actions themselves are apparently not enough — you have to be able to peer into the depths of someone else’s soul to prove their bigotry.

We know that the trolls will come out, that we’ll be called snowflakes — or far worse. We know that free speech does not apply to everyone and that online harassment can easily spill into real life. So we tread carefully. And we don’t read the comments.

We’re told to speak up at work if we’re mistreated, but, if we do, we hear, “That’s never happened to me.” And, yet, when the prime minister of the country proves to have done something that reminds us of our childhood tormentors, we’re expected to have all the answers. It’s as if we’re responsible for his moral failings.

We then have to hear the judgments cast by his political opponents — the ones who might not have  been caught on camera in blackface but have stood by those who openly despise and resent us, the ones we instinctively know resent us. But, again, because we can’t prove intent, can’t show the inner workings of their souls, we’re called partisan and paranoid.

I am reluctant to write about this because I myself am complicit. I live in a province where the reality for many Indigenous communities is dire. No running water or electricity. Children dying by suicide. Yet I go about my day. I go to the mall, go shopping, eat at a restaurant. My home has running water, and I have electricity at my finger tips. I should be demonstrating at city hall for my fellow Ontarians, but I’m not.

I am reluctant to write about Justin Trudeau’s blackface, because I am a former refugee, and Canada gave me a home and everything I hold dear. If I criticize the country that gave me refuge and saved the lives of my family, does that invalidate my gratitude and my patriotism?

I am reluctant to write about this because, if Justin Trudeau represents the best of the worst for marginalized people, then what does that say about this country I love with my whole heart?

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