If you Google “Justin Trudeau bhangra,” the first video that pops up is the Liberal party leader getting down in a crisp white kurta at an event hosted by the India-Canada Association of Montreal. In the video, posted just before the last election, Trudeau shimmies his shoulders while trying to mirror his dance partner. As a female voter of South Asian descent, I imagine strategists think this is catnip for me, but alas, there is little more repulsive to me than a white politician who “screws in the lightbulb” in an attempt to lockdown the so-called “ethnic vote.”
While Trudeau certainly didn’t invent this facile political strategy, he genuinely looks like the politician who has the most fun playing dress-up. This hit its peak last year, during Trudeau’s embarrassingly embroidery-laden trip to India which appeared to have as many costume changes as a Bollywood film.
While his enthusiasm for kurtas has been criticized by some, on Wednesday evening, it became clear that his penchant for cultural appreciation has veered toward plain, old racism in the past: painting his skin a deep brown shade, apparently to approximate Aladdin for an “Arabian Nights”-themed gala.
Time broke the story, reporting that a 29-year-old Trudeau dressed up for an event at the Vancouver private school he taught at in 2001. The grainy black-and-white photo shows Trudeau in a turban, with hands coming out of billowing sleeves painted such a dark shade of brown it reads close to black in the photo.
Trudeau, to his credit, acknowledged the costume as racist and apologized immediately, with the caveat that he “didn’t consider it racist at the time, but now we know better.”
During his initial apology, Trudeau admitted to a different instance of blackface from his past, when he sang “Day-O” in high school. On Thursday morning, Global News reported a third instance of Trudeau wearing racist makeup in a video taken in the early 1990s.
While his immediate (and more fulsome subsequent) apology was the correct political step, the incident cracks upon a glaring fissure in his progressive branding. For his political opponents, there is a deliciousness to this that is undeniable: Trudeau has ridden on the coattails of his father’s legacy of enshrining multiculturalism as part of Canadian law all the way to a number of bhangra dance parties across the country, only to have been caught reproducing painful racist caricatures.
While cancel culture dictates we write Trudeau off forever for his misstep, that’s not productive for two reasons. First, it assumes he genuinely hasn’t learned anything in 18 years. And second, it deprives us of taking the opportunity to take stock of why this has been shocking for some. In his own words at a press conference Thursday afternoon, he acknowledged that he hurt people who saw him as an ally, and doubled down on that commitment: “I am an ally.” He added later that he’s “not that person anymore” — the guy in the blackface photo — now, he’s the guy who “defends people against intolerance and racism.”
Trudeau has marketed himself as our inside man.
The former drama teacher’s image as a swoon-worthy mascot trying to keep the progress women, people of colour and LGBTQ people have made over the last 50 years afloat in a global sea of populism helps obscure the fact that he literally grew up in the corridors of power — the absolute height of white privilege. It’s something he acknowledged in his apology, his lack of understanding around blackface was blamed on the “layers of privilege” he was ensconced in. And there’s nothing wrong with being born with the privileges Trudeau has been afforded. The question is how that privilege is used — is Trudeau the true ally he’s portrayed himself as?
The costume Trudeau has worn best is that of the woke white bro we’ve all been waiting for. Trudeau has marketed himself as our inside man. The white guy who will take in refugees when the world is closing its doors, the dude who is down enough with Indigenous culture to get a Haida tattoo, feminist enough to ensure gender parity in his cabinet, and committed enough to fight climate change. Who can forget Trudeau’s famous tweet when Donald Trump instituted a Muslim ban in 2017?
But his government has been trying to find a way to close a provision in the Safe Third Country Agreement that allows asylum-seekers in the U.S. who no longer feel safe there to cross at an unofficial border into Canada (typically, they would have to seek asylum in the first safe country they reach) to seek asylum. While he championed women in his cabinet in 2015, he shuffled Jody Wilson-Raybauld the first chance he got during the SNC Lavalin affair, after exerting pressure on her to deny a deferred prosecution agreement to the firm. And while implementing a carbon tax to fight climate change, his government spent $4.5 billion buying the Trans Mountain Pipeline, despite intense opposition from Indigenous communities and environmentalists.
This isn’t to say his entire track record is full of duplicity — Trudeau has made historic apologies to the LGBTQ and Indigenous communities, extended parental leave, and reinforced a gutted Status of Women department.
But the thing about being an ally is that it’s not about taking power to represent those who have had it historically taken away from them. It’s about finding ways to share power. The simplest way to do this, the absolute bare minimum to ensure Canadians needs would be better reflected in government, would have been to move to a democratic system more representative than first-past-the post — as he had promised during the 2015 campaign. But upon taking up office, Trudeau quashed his own proposal to enhance Canadian democracy because the very system he railed against helped him win a majority.
While Trudeau will always market himself as the fresh perspective Canadians need, the truth is he’s replicated the institutional patterns Canadians are used to because, quite simply, he’s exactly the kind of person who benefits from them. In order to live up to the progressive brand he’s so carefully cultivated, Trudeau should consider retiring his kurtas and prove his wokeness isn’t a politically convenient wardrobe choice.
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