I was struck, in reading the New York Times article on the widening gyre of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s blackface and brownface scandal, by what the very first sentence described as a long-standing issue of public perception for him: “That he isn’t really who he portrays himself to be.” Because Trudeau was famous from the moment of his birth, as the son of a sitting PM — and with a dynastic lineage beyond this, the fact that President Nixon toasted him as “future prime minister of Canada” when he was 4 months old and the wealthy privilege he enjoyed from childhood through elite schools and into the political arena — he has worked overtime to make this glittering background fade. He tried to not be clueless royalty.
But he failed.
That Trudeau won’t say how many times he put on dark makeup to dress up as a different race feels like an admission that he doesn’t really know. He didn’t keep track. It was no big deal. That behavior is only possible if you have no connection to — no respect for — the group you’re stereotyping. And it’s no coincidence that events where racist costumes are tolerated happen in academic enclaves far removed from the less fortunate, whether it’s the “Arabian Nights” gala at the fancy private school where Trudeau was a teacher or the offensive “Cinco de Drinko” and “Ghetto Party” celebrations in college frat houses across America.
It’s as if this becomes part of the advantaged student’s higher learning: You’re taught not to be “better” but to automatically think of yourself as such. Wouldn’t it be funny to put on an Afro wig or a sombrero, and for a night pretend you weren’t? To masquerade as the absent and oppressed? To pressure any representative of the non-white population you’re mocking to laugh along?
This callousness toward individuals of color, like grift and corruption, isn’t partisan. Trudeau is leader of the Liberal Party; Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, accused of posing in blackface for a medical school yearbook photo, is a Democrat. It also runs deeper than face paint. The indigenous community of Canada could have already told you, based on broken promises to protect tribal territory and smugness at being challenged on such issues, that Trudeau is sorely lacking when it comes to race relations. To be fair, however, I guess he’ll also elbow you in the stomach and yell “Get the fuck out of the way!” if you’re a white woman serving in Parliament.
What you see in him is an institutional, internalized bigotry at odds with the “woke bae” image that is both self-constructed and bestowed upon him. Kids who grow up similarly ignorant of other people’s humanity due to their status are always at risk of developing this mentality.
Think of the Covington Catholic boys, bussed to Washington, D.C., to march against women’s reproductive rights, winding up in a viral confrontation with an elderly Native American. Or the teen athletes of California’s affluent Orange County who sang Nazi marching songs while delivering the Nazi salute. Or Stephen Miller, architect of the Trump administration’s cruelest immigration policies, long ago running for high school class president in the rich, white city of Santa Monica, and angrily asking his electorate, “Am I the only one who is sick and tired of being told to pick up my trash when we have plenty of janitors who are paid to do it for us?!” This hateful ideology seizes its disciples early, and it blinds them to anything like compassion.
Of course, not everyone is born into this hard-heartedness, but the elevation attained by fame and fortune is sometimes enough to sever one’s link to baser struggle. How else would Kanye West end up supporting Trump and calling slavery “a choice”? For what other reason does Elon Musk, a billionaire with 28 million Twitter followers, call a stranger “pedo guy” on his timeline and expect anyone to believe he’s the real victim here? Why does a Martin Shkreli raise the price of a life-saving drug by 5,000 percent, or an Ed Buck feel he can kill queer black men with impunity?
It must be that having money and power allow you to forget the pain of those without either — or worse, to revel in that pain, secure in your tropical island compound. You don’t have to care about climate collapse, and the countless lives it will cost, because you’ve got property in New Zealand. If you’re Rep. Joe Kennedy, heavily invested in oil and gas, go ahead and primary the progressive Sen. Ed Markey, co-sponsor of the Green New Deal. At no point will it occur to you that any of this is selfish. The rest of us just don’t matter. We’re noise.
Celebrities are not your friends. Tech CEOs are not your saviors. And most political leaders cannot imagine your daily existence. Remember that, and you will rarely be disappointed.