Last week, photos of Justin Trudeau dressed in blackface emerged, creating chaos for a campaign built around stability and continuation. The pictures are rightfully damning for a whole number of reasons, but Trudeau’s attempt at an apology is as telling. To begin with, there’s the simple fact that he only addressed the situation because he was caught. For a man who has staked a claim to being a voice for diversity, Trudeau would have been far better off admitting to this behaviour in one of his many speeches about the issues of racism and xenophobia in Canadian society. That he failed to do so makes his apology ring completely hollow. This type of reactive regret is precisely what causes people to lose trust in leadership, as it is precisely the opposite of leading on any issue whatever.
Nobody should engage in such an offensive thing, but it is especially bizarre coming from Trudeau. Weirdly, he refused to say how many different instances of blackface would be uncovered. Apparently, it was sort of his ‘thing’. He weirdly blamed it on his love of costumes, as though he just loved getting dressed up so much that blackface was something like an inevitability. And yes, these photos were from a long time ago, but why should that matter? Particularly in a case like Trudeau’s, how would he not have seen this coming, even then? After all, this is a man who has been groomed his whole life for public service, almost destined to be Prime Minister, son of Pierre. This means that he was so fine with dressing up in blackface that it never even crossed his mind that it could be a problem when he one day stepped into his father’s shoes.
Of all the stupid ways in which Trudeau has tried to apologize for these pictures, the most ridiculous is this; “I have dedicated my service to Canada to combat intolerance and racism whenever I can... I didn’t see that from the layers of privilege I have. For that, I am deeply sorry and I apologize.” Here we have a world leader, caught doing something wrong, something that embodies the very white privilege he claims to be so intent on moving society beyond, and in his hour of need, he blames said privilege for creating the blind spot that led to him doing something, that at the time, he just could not see as offensive. It wasn’t him, it was his privilege! It would be difficult to come up with a clearer example of white privilege. The possibility that a national political leader, one who rails against the injustice of racism and discrimination, could blame his privilege, is white privilege perfectly distilled to its purest form.
Trudeau is not the first politician to botch an apology and he certainly won’t be the last. There are myriad political calculations that go into such a thing, and he was transparently trying to toe a line between regret, the desire for forgiveness, accountability, and not wanting to admit exactly how bad what he did was. This doesn’t excuse Trudeau, it merely shows him to be a politician like pretty much any other. But, as with so many other failed apologies, it was a missed opportunity. To me, it seems rather simple. If you’re going to wait until your caught in order to address this pattern of behaviour, admit that you did so in the apology itself. Explain why you were too embarrassed to show this part of your life. Admit that it was a political calculation that was wrong and would lead to a loss of trust. Explain what your thinking was at the time, what your thinking is now, and how that evolution took place. Talk of the role of white privilege but only from the standpoint of taking accountability for abusing it, not that the privilege itself was the obfuscating factor. If you don’t know exactly how many other pictures may come out, admit that you did this quite often, and for that you can see that a mere apology is nowhere near enough. Tell Canadians that the only way to try to make amends is to do the work, and that even that wouldn’t absolve you, but merely show that your evolution is genuine. Failing that, even a genuine apology does precisely nothing for anybody.
It’s difficult to say exactly what impact this will have on the upcoming election, but obviously it’s not going to help Trudeau and the Liberals. If it ends up being a key factor in his defeat, Trudeau will have yet another opportunity to address the photos. Whether he wins or loses, he simply must do so. He cannot use a victory as proof that he need not discuss this further. Likewise, he cannot see a defeat as a reason to shirk away from it. No matter how this plays out, after Election Day, Trudeau must go much further in his attempts to apologize and explain how he plans to move forward. Anything less would be another failure to lead. V