‘Boxing in the wind’: Why white Canadians still struggle to talk racism

Click to play video: 'Justin Trudeau seen in blackface in Global News exclusive video'
Justin Trudeau seen in blackface in Global News exclusive video
WATCH: Global News has obtained video showing Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau in blackface, the third instance of racist dress to come to light in 12 hours – Sep 19, 2019

Within hours of the first photo of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wearing brownface being published online, the Liberal leader was in front of cameras apologizing.

He acknowledged that the act of darkening your skin is racist and that him doing so was racist, although he said he didn’t know it at the time — it was 2001, he was 29 and he darkened his hands to match his face.

And now?

“Now, we know better,” Trudeau said.

Rachel Décoste, an immigration and multiculturalism expert based out of Ottawa, wants to know who “we” is.

“Many of us did know better. When he speaks to ‘we,’ he’s talking about mostly white people or people who are not black.”

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Go back to the 1800s, she says. The black community in Toronto and Montreal was smaller than it is now but still big enough to ask white people to please stop wearing blackface.

“It fell on deaf ears,” Décoste says. “Our voices have been falling on deaf ears for a long time.”

And now that the scandal seems to be gaining steam — particularly after Trudeau indicated Thursday that he wouldn’t say how many more times he might have worn blackface because he can’t remember — Liberal supporters are already urging people to let it lie, lest voters’ anger over decades-old racist acts propel their arch-rivals, Andrew Scheer and his Conservative party, to power.

“They don’t want to have that conversation,” Décoste says. “They don’t want to have a teaching moment and they don’t want to hear about Canadian history. They want to skip over that part and skip to the part where Canada is good.”

The Canadian way is to treat racism as an anomaly, says University of Toronto professor Akwasi Owusu-Bempah. But it isn’t.

“Racism has always been a feature of Canadian society. We do not live in a post-racial Canada,” he says.

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“We live very much, largely, as a harmonious society, but that does not mean that racism isn’t a problem.”

Look at the annual hate crime statistics, Owusu-Bempah says, adding: “Race is a motivation for a significant proportion of all hate crime.”

Hate crimes reported to police jumped by nearly 50 per cent from 2016 to 2017, according to data released by Statistics Canada last spring. Those whose hate crimes were fuelled by religion, race or ethnicity increased by 32 per cent — mostly because of hate crimes targeting black people.

And yet, whenever Canadians start to talk about those crimes, start to talk about racist acts, the conversation is stymied before it’s even begun, says Kathy Hogarth, an associate professor at the University of Waterloo and author of A Space for Race: Decoding Racism, Multiculturalism and Post-Colonialism in the Quest for Belonging in Canada and Beyond.

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That search for Canada the good that Décoste mentioned?

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“We are all afraid to be called racist because the fabric of Canadian society is built on this myth of the good Canadian: we are peaceful, loving people,” Hogarth says. “To be called racist flies in the face of that myth, of how we constructed our national and individual identities. We are not racist like our American friends — that’s what we rest on.”

And so, conversations about racism with (predominantly) white people are like “boxing in the wind,” she says.

“If we aren’t brave enough to name things, if we don’t have the courage to stand up and call the thing what it is then we cannot address it because it remains nebulous and unnamed.”

Trudeau saying it — “this was something that was unacceptable and yes, racist” — is important, Owusu-Bempah, Décoste, and Hogarth agree. But that’s where the approval ends.

“For a leader, the apology is so problematic. It is a cop-out,” Hogarth says. Trudeau took responsibility at the same time as he offered a mea culpa — “It was something that I didn’t think was racist at the time.”

WATCH: What comes next for Liberals after Trudeau blackface controversy?

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Federal Election 2019: What comes next for Liberals after Trudeau blackface controversy?

His apology “had the potential to allow others to question their engagement in racist behaviours,” Hogarth says. “But by going the cop-out route of ‘I didn’t know it was racist,’ he gives those who are engaging in racist behaviours a handle to hold, a cover as it were, to say: ‘Well, if our prime minister can obfuscate this truth then we can, too.’”

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On Thursday, Owusu-Bempah led a training session on anti-racism. As an exercise, he asked people specifically whether they’ve been discriminated against or whether they, themselves, have discriminated against someone else.

“I don’t think there are many Canadians of any racial background who can say they haven’t discriminated, implicitly or explicitly, against a member of another group,” he says. “We all hold certain types of biases so it shouldn’t come as a surprise.”

And yet, to say, “I am not a racist, she/he is not a racist, this is not a racist institution, Canada is not a racist society,” is to say words that have become mantras, wrote Frances Henry in the introduction of her book, The Colour of Democracy: Racism in Canadian Society. These are mantras that, “when repeated, cast an illusory spell that has allowed Canadians to ignore the harsh reality of a society divided by colour and ethnicity,” Henry added.

Shatter the illusion, Décoste says.

“Don’t let people off the hook for saying a kumbaya, for saying: ‘I believe in multiculturalism.’ That’s not an answer.”

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‘This is going to hurt Canadians’ Jagmeet Singh reacts to Justin Trudeau blackface video

Don’t get sucked into a conversation about who is the least racist, Trudeau or Scheer, she adds — instead, take them to task and ask them what they will do to address racism today.

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“What metrics are in place to measure the progress that we have or have not done besides lip service? What concrete policies or programs or legislative proposals or laws can we enact to balance the playing field, to punish people who do racist things that affect our educational outcomes, judicial outcomes, police brutality, police stop and frisk and carding outcomes?” Décoste says.

That discussion, Décoste says, is the one most likely to bring Canada “closer to the ideals that we think we are.”

But it requires calling out racism and not letting Liberal supporters steer the conversation in a new direction simply because Scheer might win if they don’t, Hogarth says.

“Our leaders, no matter who they are and no matter how progressive they sound, are not immune to practicing racism, to behaving in racist ways. We must be able to call them out on it or else we are not advancing as a society.”

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