Brown-Faced Man

As someone who unapologetically wears brownface every day, I find the hysterical front-page revelation of Justin Trudeau’s 2001 experiment with brownface pretty underwhelming. I also find the reaction to it on the part of various brown-faced Canadian politicians to be a transparent instance (so to speak) of grandstanding. If ever there was a case where policy ought to trump a supposed matter of character in politics, this is it–not so much because policy always trumps character in political matters, but because the supposed matter of character involved here is so morally inconsequential that just about anything trumps it.

As is typical of contemporary political discourse, charges of “racism” have been made and even confessed to without anyone’s really explaining what was so “racist” about what Trudeau did. Whatever it was, I don’t see it. As an illustration of the general cluelessness that prevails on this issue, I heard the Time reporter who broke the story say on NPR this morning that Trudeau had been in brownface at a party where other “appropriative” costumes had been worn. Presumably, “appropriative” costumes contrast with the non-appropriative kind, whatever that’s supposed to mean.

Just a little FYI: a costume is a form of apparel distinctive to a specific time, place, character, or demographic. It’s inherent in the very idea of a costume that wearing one involves appropriation, at least in the fustian sense of “appropriation” that now prevails in contemporary moral discourse (which, oddly enough, involves an appropriation of the word “appropriation”). So the objection to “appropriative costumes” is ultimately just an objection to costumes—not just to blackface and brownface, or to kids dressing up as IDF soldiers, but to Halloween, cosplay, and all the rest. Is that where our moral martinets really want to go?

Image result for justin trudeau in brownface

Justin may look like an idiot, but his Sikh friends don’t seem all that upset….

The irony is that the Aladdin controversy obscures both Trudeau’s successes and his failings when it comes to actual, living, breathing brown people. On the plus side, Trudeau’s refugee policy has been exemplary—good enough, you’d think, to constitute a credit that wipes out the Aladdin charge. On the minus side, his government’s adoption of the IHRA’s so-called “working definition” of “anti-Semitism” turns principled criticism of Israel and principled support of the Palestinians into a hate crime–an act of complicity in Israel’s decades-long project to expropriate the Palestinians in the fully literal sense of that word.

The real questions about Trudeau have nothing to do with his playing Aladdin eighteen years ago, but about the character issues that drive his pro-Israel policies, and the pro-Israel policies that express his character today. The Aladdin story is front and center this morning on the home page of The New York Times and elsewhere, and threatens to stay there for awhile. Leave it to little minds to make a big story of something so trivial. If only we had the sense to see how little this story matters, and how pitifully it compares to the things that do.

15 thoughts on “Brown-Faced Man

  1. Wait a minute. You’re the one who has migraines. I just appropriated ( or is it appropriviated??) your illness/disability. Do you feel victimized yet (if you do, just wait until you get home!) 😉

    By this definition, the Wayans brothers are racist for their depiction of white people in “White Chicks”!

    The thing we’re losing most is fun. All this just makes me want to drink (if only I could).

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  2. Pingback: Nightcap | Notes On Liberty

    • Well, as universes go, you couldn’t have found a better one.

      I wrote that post before the videos surfaced of Trudeau in blackface. That, I think, belongs in a different category than the brownface revelation, and deserves harsher criticism. The only mitigating factor is that he did it in high school. You’d expect more moral sense even of a high school student, but the question then becomes how much of someone’s high school career can be held against them decades later. Surely some part, with allowances made for the difference between, say, cavorting in blackface and committing a violent felony.

      Blackface involves historical associations that don’t apply to brownface. It would be one thing to put on a revived version of a minstrelsy show, and another to put on a production of Mozart’s “Abduction from the Seraglio” in full dress costume, even with makeup applied to the Molyneux-complexioned white guy who happened to be playing Pasha Salim. Because it’s not as though we could discriminate against such a person on racial grounds if he was the best Pasha Salim for the part. Facial hair aside, I think even Molyneux himself would agree that he doesn’t at present look much like a Turkish pasha, and would need some touching-up to look the part in a credible way. (Just to be explicit: my point is that the minstrelsy show would be wrong, not the Mozart production. Such clarifications are necessary for certain readers of this blog at my university who tend to need help with reading comprehension.)

      This isn’t to say that I applaud Trudeau’s use of brownface, just to say that as a brown face myself, I don’t share in the strenuously-confected outrage over it.

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      • “You’d expect more moral sense even of a high school student…”

        I wouldn’t, and I think I spend more time with high school students than other regular contributors to this blog (yes, I know, I haven’t been a regular contributor lately; I blame the high school students for that). That’s not to excuse them; many of them are pervasively susceptible to moral idiocy, and it is indeed idiocy. That said, they’re kids. So it goes.

        For whatever it’s worth, though, I gather that the brownface stuff did not happen when Trudeau was a high school student, but when he was a 29 year old high school teacher. I am not especially inclined to see this as an expression of any deep moral flaws in the guy; the fact that the picture comes from the school’s yearbook should remind us that hardly anybody else in his social environment at the time found it problematic, either. They were wrong, and he was wrong, but there’s a difference between having failed to see through the moral shortcomings of one’s society and being a despicable racist who isn’t fit for office. In case anyone needs reminding, the latter is what we’ve got in this country. I suppose it might be fitting for Trudeau to address the matter more fully than by simply apologizing, perhaps explaining how he first failed and later came to appreciate why dressing up in brown- or blackface is demeaning and insulting. I don’t have any strong opinions about him as a political figure, but I very seriously doubt that he’s implacably opposed to the interests or rights of minorities in Canada or that he is beyond correction on these matters. The contrast with our own commander-in-chief makes it hard for me to take this outrage very seriously.

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        • Agreed with all of that, but in thinking about this over the last few days, I think I’m inclined to go farther than what you say in your comment or what I said in my post. I do think that both blackface and brownface but especially blackface should be avoided at all costs. But one can accept that prescription and still draw a distinction between the two: blackface is much worse than brownface. One can also accept the prescription and grasp that motivation matters; there are more and less excusable reasons for darkening one’s face with makeup. The closer one comes to mockery, the more objectionable the behavior, but the farther one is from mockery, the less objectionable. What I find problematic about current modes of discourse on this topic is the apparent inability to grasp the fact that in evaluating behavior that took place decades ago, uses of either blackface or brownface that involved zero intention of mocking black or brown people are simply not that morally serious, and are not obviously racist, either.

          Oddly enough, I came to this conclusion by re-visiting the Megyn Kelly controversy, which I more or less ignored when it actually happened. Here’s one item:

          https://www.thedailybeast.com/megyn-kelly-defends-blackface-on-halloween-how-is-it-racist

          Kelly says many stupid and indefensible things here that I don’t want to defend. But her Halloween comment was not nearly as wrong or racist as it was made out to be.

          Imagine yourself back in the year 1979. You’re a white kid who idolizes, say, Pele, Muhammad Ali, Reggie Jackson, or Wilt Chamberlain. So you dress up as one of your heroes for Halloween. In order to be recognized as a black sports figure, you darken your skin.

          One problem with doing this is that in doing so, you may inadvertently conjure up distasteful memories or images of minstrel shows and the like. And perhaps your parents should know this and stop you before you cause offense.

          But those parents might justifiably have come to the conclusion that what distinguishes your use of skin-darkening from blackface in the offensive sense is a matter of motivation: the child in my example (and that Kelly had in mind) was darkening his skin to resemble his heroes; the motivation involved in blackface is the exact opposite of that. Given the distinction in motivation, there is a distinction between the two acts; hence (the parent might infer) there is no harm in the child’s dressing up as some famous black figure, up to and including the darkening of his skin, as long as no mockery is involved. And ex hypothesi, none is.

          So the child wears “blackface” in a Pickwickian sense. As Kelly suggests, kids did do that a few decades ago without necessarily creating offense. This is not necessarily because Americans ca. 1979 were racially benighted (or Americans ca. 2019 are racially enlightened) in ways that so many “woke” people would have you believe. It may be because people were better able to make moral distinctions then than they now are. Subtle as the distinction apparently is, they understood the distinction between darkening your skin to physically resemble someone you admire (in a narrow context that calls for physical resemblance), and doing so to mock someone of a different race. It’s not obvious to me that the de facto abolition of that distinction demonstrates moral progress.

          The reasoning of the parents in my example may be, or may have been, wrong. But it’s equally wrong to brand those who engaged in it “racist.” There’s a distinction to be drawn between an honest mistake and an act of racism. The attacks on Megyn Kelly (and on Justin Trudeau) blur that distinction in obtuse ways. Consider this passage from the same article above:

          After Kelly’s show aired, the blowback online was nearly instantaneous.

          “Honestly, minstrel shows and blackface were a popular form of extremely racist mass entertainment in America up through the early 20th century,” wrote Jamelle Bouie, a CBS News political analyst. “People who comment for a living should know that.”

          “You can take the host out of Fox News but you can’t take the Fox News out of the host,” wrote New York Times politics reporter Astead Herndon.

          Kelly’s comments also drew the ire of celebrities, including Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi, who tweeted at the NBC host: “I cannot believe the ignorance on this in 2018. You are on national television. You have a responsibility to educate yourself on social issues.”

          Neither Bouie’s nor Lakshmi’s comments make any attempt to deal with what Kelly actually said. Granted, she said it poorly. Granted, she’s said a lot of dumb things as well. But people getting on their high horse about the need for educated discourse should be able to cut through the noise and grasp the essential point involved. It’s a mistake to think of “blackface” in purely behavioristic terms, as though it was the moral equivalent of a strict liability offense whose every instance always entails the same judgment: RACISM! How we judge it depends on why it was being done. We have now gotten to the point where it’s prudent to treat blackface as a strict liability offense, but arguably, there’s something wrong with a society unable to distinguish between Halloween costumes and minstrel shows.

          All of this, I admit, is only tangentially relevant to what Trudeau did. He wasn’t a small child on Halloween, and wasn’t darkening his skin out of rapt admiration for some dark-complexioned figure. But what he did, however ill-advised, doesn’t necessarily justify the “RACIST” verdict that so many people want to dish out.

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    • I find it telling, by the way, that the tweet of Molyneux’s that you pasted above doesn’t seem to be showing up on my computer. This is an unfortunate technical glitch that I can’t explain, but probably also a good sign: vampires don’t show up on film; Molyneux’s Twitter feed doesn’t show up on my blog.

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      • Here is Molyneux’s tweet again for anyone who can’t see it in Roderick’s comment:

        It’s one of at least a dozen he’s posted on this topic.

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