On September 18, 2019, TIME magazine released an image of Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau wearing blackface makeup at a school event. Two more images of Trudeau wearing blackface were released soon after shocking many Canadians.
Blackface involves darkening one’s skin to resemble dark-skinned people. According to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, blackface began in the nineteenth century as a component of theatre, where white actors would darken their skin and comedically portray African-Americans as “lazy, ignorant, superstitious, hypersexual, and prone to thievery and cowardice”.
The blackface practice inspired the creation of Jim Crow, a racist theatre character, in 1830 and eventually the Jim Crow era of deeply racist laws. According to the Ferris State University, Jim Crow’s character mocked African-American behaviour with exaggerated actions and his face and hands were blackened by burnt cork. The term “Jim Crow” was also a designation for the United States’ segregation laws which both oppressed African-Americans and established white supremacy. Blackface can be credited for contributing to many of the stereotypes and systemic racism towards black people that exist to this day.
Trudeau’s term in office and his 2019 election campaign have largely attempted to counter racism and portray both Trudeau and Canada as allies of minority Canadians. Therefore, Trudeau wearing blackface makeup shocked Canadians even more so because of the anti-racism image Trudeau had projected throughout the previous four years he was in office.
“There are pictures and videos from at least three separate times. And given the fact that [Trudeau’s] unwilling to say how many times, this suggests there’s probably more,” says Dr. Randy Besco, a political science professor at UTM. “It’s very strange. People do wear blackface. It’s not totally unheard of, but it’s also not common. It’s just very strange that he did it a bunch of times when nobody else was doing it.”
With the Canadian federal election fast approaching, Trudeau’s blackface scandal has garnered a lot of attention. Besco remarks that it is “notable that [Trudeau] didn’t tell anybody” during the vetting process in past elections and that the images were not found earlier since some were in school yearbooks and others on the Internet already.
In terms of the possible effects on the election results, Besco says that “the polls have changed some but not a lot which may be surprising given it’s a big scandal.”
Besco, whose current research examines the role of race in elections, explains why the polls have not changed drastically.
One reason may be that “there [are] a lot of white people who don’t really care because it’s not about them, or because they think it’s fine.”
The second reason involves Liberals who “are precisely the people who would normally get the most upset about this kind of [scandal].” However, since they are Liberals, “they do not want to believe bad things about their leader.”
Besco also adds that “historically, [minorities] are more likely to be Liberals anyways.” Compared to right-wing political parties such as the Conservative Party of Canada, “those are the people that are generally less likely to be upset.”
Although the polls may not have shifted immediately following the release of Trudeau’s blackface images, voters still have a month to reflect on how or whether this scandal changes their perception of Trudeau.