I get that it’s problematic for Justin Trudeau to dress up in brownface, but it’s also problematic when we focus on it.
When we call out the racism of other people, we perpetuate the idea that racism is restricted to a small collection of acts. We otherize racism: these things that other people do is racism, and since we don’t do them, we’re not racist.
And it doesn’t matter whether it’s Donald Trump calling Mexican immigrants animals and rapists or it’s Justin Trudeau wearing brownface. The point is the same: when we highlight their specific acts—especially when they’re acts that we wouldn’t partake in—we make racism foreign to us, making us immune to it.
Except we’re not immune to it; each of us is racist. You see, racism isn’t innate; it’s something we have to learn. We learn it from our friends, from our parents, from the media, from classmates, from neighbours, from Sunday School teachers, from siblings, and from a whole host of everyday interactions with others.
Racism can be taught in several ways. It can be how a parent responds to a person of colour walking by on the street, or how a cashier responds to a non-white customer, or how a cop changes how they talk to someone based on their skin colour.
And we all pick it up over time. We internalize it. And it becomes part of our understanding about racialized people. It’s how groups of people become racialized. And we can’t hide our own racism behind the overt racism of public figures. Focusing on their racism doesn’t absolve us of ours.
Consider the Canadian Press photo used by Salvador Hernandez in his Buzzfeed article on the topic, which you can find here.
Where are the people of colour among the reporters in this photo who are questioning Trudeau on his racism? Maybe while the media is nailing Trudeau to the wall for his racism, they can investigate why their reporting corps is so white.
Speaking of hypocrisy, where are all the people calling on Trudeau to apologize and step down on the racism inherent in the justice system? Where are they on the racism inherent in the everyday lives of people of colour as they try to shop, try to rent homes, try to get jobs? Where are they on the racism inherent in the systematic removal of children from Indigenous communities?
You want to call out political leaders on their racism? Fine. But you better be calling out all the racism around you while you’re at it, including your own.