Assessing the Overton Window: Trudeau’s 2019 Blackface Incident

[Note: This was the final essay for a rhetoric class that I took last term, titled Politics and Bullshit. I figured I might as well put it up, because I had a lot of fun writing it, and also school is cancelled because of this new virus going around so I suddenly have some free time on my hands.

This is an extra-long post, so I’m sticking it under a cut. Read on to find out about party, media, and internet responses to the scandal and what it might mean for our understanding of modern politics.]

Introduction

On any given issue, there is a range of possible opinions. Of the entire range, only a band is considered socially acceptable, with opinions outside the band seen as taboo and the centre of the band seen as the most reasonable perspective. This band is often referred to as the Overton Window. As public opinion shifts on what the most reasonable perspective is, the entire band slides along the range of all possible opinions, so that previously taboo opinions on one end become viable, and previously viable opinions on the other end become taboo. For example, at one point in the past, it was acceptable to believe that people of different races should not be allowed to intermarry, an opinion that is now taboo. At that time, the idea that all races are equal in worth would have been radical, but it is now seen as a very normal belief to hold.

This post aims to be a documentation of responses to Justin Trudeau’s 2019 blackface scandal. The aim of this is to map out the Overton Window on racial thought as we enter the third decade of the 21st century. To do this, I will be looking at the responses of the three largest political parties to understand the most “mainstream” view, opinion pieces from establishment new sources to broaden the perspective, and fringe opinions from the far left and right on Reddit forums to provide the edges of the window.

The Scandal

On September 18, 2019, Time Magazine released a previously unseen yearbook photo of Justin Trudeau from 2001. On the photo, he was wearing brownface makeup at an “Arabian Nights” themed fundraising gala for the private school that he was working for at the time.

On the same day, following the release of the photos, Trudeau was asked if he had worn brown- or blackface on other occasions. Trudeau admitted then that he also wore “makeup” to perform a Jamaican folk song in a high school talent show, and implied that this was the only other incident. Photo evidence of the high school incident was quickly found and publicized.

On the next day, September 19th, Global News released video evidence of a third instance of Trudeau darkening his skin, apparently from his time as a university student at McGill. Following this release, Trudeau was asked point blank by the media to provide an exact number for how many times he has worn brown- or black-face.

“I shared the moments that I recollected, but I recognize that it is something absolutely unacceptable to do,” he responded. “And I appreciate calling it ‘makeup’, but it was blackface. And that is just not right. It is something that people who lived with the kind of discrimination that far too many people do because of the colour of their skin, or their history, or their origins, or their language or their religion face on a regular basis, and I didn’t see that, from the layers of privilege that I have. And for that I am deeply sorry, and I apologize.”

From Trudeau’s reluctance or inability to provide an exact number of incidents, many speculate that Trudeau has worn brown- or blackface on more incidents that have yet to be revealed.

Party Responses

In this section, I use the responses made by the three largest Canadian political parties as a proxy for the most “mainstream” Canadian views. I don’t look at the response from smaller parties, as they target specific demographics instead of trying for mass appeal. Although the specific incentives and power dynamics in play may skew this data, I would expect it to still be largely reflective of common sentiment.

I found that the parties refrained from any commentary outside of the personal twitters of representatives, and interviews of the leaders by the mainstream media. The tweet put out by each leader on the topic were a good summary of the tone and type of arguments used by each leader, so they are the primary source of assessment.

The Liberal Party

Trudeau’s response is one that plays up his personal responsibility while demonstrating his own, personal understanding of blackface’s problematic nature and the way that it hurts others. Despite this, he does not actually mention the act of blackface by name in the body of the tweet.

In press conferences and interviews, he frequently refers to the incidents as singular. “I have to recognize that I let a lot of people down with that choice,” he says in the tweet’s linked apology video. Despite the fact that this statement was released after the publicization of three separate incidents spanning a decade in time, he indicates that his choice was made once in an attempt to minimize his actions.

Similarly, when asked about the third incident, the wording he chose was “I am continuing to be open with Canadians about the mistake I made,” again, with ‘mistake’ being singular.

Despite this, the tone of the tweet is frank and contrite, direct in a way that politicians are generally thought not to be. He talks about his track record in the video, and the overall effect is that Trudeau is a person that has been a champion for racial equality, who is willing to confront his past but move on from it to focus on current results.

The Conservative Party

[Video transcript: “Like all Canadians, I was extremely shocked and disappointed when I learned of Justin Trudeau’s actions this evening. Wearing brown face is an act of open mockery and racism. It was just as racist in 2001 as it is in 2019. What Canadians saw this evening is someone with a complete lack of judgment and integrity and someone who’s not fit to govern this country.”]

Although Trudeau had not attempted to make the “it was another time” argument, Scheer is clear to point out that blackface as an act has been considered racist for the better part of a century. He associates the decision to don blackface with poor judgement and integrity, and asserts that a person who wears blackface is an unfit leader for Canada.

By doing so, he positions himself as someone who, in light of not having worn blackface, is an individual with better judgement and integrity, although he does not say this outright. Instead, the CPC does not do anything to indicate that they are in the middle of campaigning against Trudeau. This is likely intended to make Scheer seem less opportunistic and more authentically disappointed in his reaction video.

The NDP

Singh goes one step further from not mentioning campaigning, and instead explicitly states that this is an incident that has much broader consequences (and thus to diminish it would be improper). He speaks with love towards those that have been hurt by similarly racist sentiment but does not identify himself with them in the text of the tweet. To his supporters and sympathizers, it’s clear that Canada as a country is racist enough that his inclusion goes without saying. To others, it’s evidence that he’s not playing the victim in this situation, a tactic that some see as playing dirty.

He is also very tactful in his interactions with Trudeau post-incident. He has stated that he is unwilling to be used as a “tool in [Trudeau’s] exoneration” by making nice with him in a public setting, but also refuses to call him a racist when asked point-blank in an interview. Instead, he implores Canadians to think about the efficacy of Trudeau’s policy decisions, rather than his personal beliefs, and vote based on that. In this way, he speaks out against Trudeau without coming off as opportunistic, or unduly occupied with racism as a man of colour.

The result is that Singh appears to be a principled and empathetic decision maker. Implicitly, the message is that that such forms of casual racism or oppression would never happen under him, because he has first-hand experience of the harm that it causes.

Summary

As expected, the takes from each of the parties are all fairly milquetoast and designed to appeal broadly to the Canadian public. Pathos is used heavily by all three parties – Trudeau’s regret, Scheer’s disappointment, and Singh’s love are all bids for the audience’s understanding and support. Despite the amount of sincerity on show from Trudeau, neither Scheer nor Singh seem inclined to accept his apology, but this is to be expected due to the nature of party opposition.

Mainstream Media Responses

To move away from the centre of the window, I look at opinion pieces published in the National Post and The Star, prominent Canadian publications that lean right and left respectively. I consider the most “extreme” opinions posted in both papers, as an upper bound for the distance that opinions can stray from the centre while still getting space in widely respected publications.

National Post

On the National Post, commentators were split on whether Trudeau is a racist, but one recurring theme was that he was hypocritical for espousing progressive views while hiding very regressive activities from his past.

In a piece titled “Is Justin Trudeau a racist? No. He is a sanctimonious fraud”, columnist Andrew Coyne attributes Trudeau’s “delight in blackface” to “the vanity, the insatiable desire for attention, the showy theatricality” that he had allegedly previously displayed.

On the other hand, columnist Christie Blatchford asks about one incident, somewhat clumsily, “And what was that costume or character you were supposed to be? Or were you just meant to be a random black guy boogieing around, as apparently you believe they do?

Blatchford seems to imply here that believing that “black guys” “boogie around” is offensive and the source of the outrage around the scandal.

Both columnists paint Trudeau as someone who is manipulative and self serving. Blatchford calls out his responses as being non-answers and asserts that “the only Canadian job he stands up and fights for is his own”. Coyne is more extreme, and portrays Trudeau as a wolf in sheep’s clothing:

“The prime minister has proved adept at deploying the jargon and cliches of the identitarian left (“microaggressions,” “intersectionalities,” and “ally” all featured highly in the Winnipeg press conference) in moments of maximum political danger: recall his earlier non-denial of having groped a young female reporter, this time as a 28-year-old: “men and women often experience situations differently.”

Coyne and Blatchford also both express bitterness that he seems to have left the scandal relatively unscathed and with a loyal supporter base intact.

The Star

While the opinion pieces of the Post focused on the personal failings of Trudeau, the opinion pieces of The Star seem much more concerned with systemic forces at play. Much ink was spilled on how no one should be shocked that a prominent white leader would be caught in blackface, about Canada’s historical racism, and the deeper implications for ongoing systemic oppression of people of colour. From a piece titled “Trudeau in blackface is a symptom of Canada’s widespread anti-Black racism” by Philip Howard:

 “What we most need to pay attention to is not the intent or the level of ignorance of the person who wears blackface. Rather, our focus needs to be on the embedded racial logics that drive blackface and the negative impacts of the practice on Black people.”

Dr. Cheryl Thompson, an academic studying Canadian black culture, seems to agree:

“If we keep it real for a minute, Trudeau is not the first (or last) white male to darken their skin in supposed jest. As someone who has spent the last 10 years studying blackface in Canada, the one thing I know to be true is that blackface is as Canadian as hockey. It literally was (is) performed everywhere.”

And from columnist Jagdeesh Mann:

“Our prime minister’s ignorance of what is and is not racist has been exposed. But in the context of establishment Canada, his lack of awareness is just par for the course.”

“This is what informed Trudeau’s return, again and again, to blackface: he was assured his friends and colleagues would enjoy his shenanigans,” writes Howard. Again, Thompson’s piece echoes the sentiment. “Like most racist things, [blackface] did not go away. Nothing ever really goes away. It was relegated to private schools, private parties (especially at Halloween), and private spaces where Black and brown folks just did not go.”

Intentional or not, I think this has the effect of minimizing Trudeau’s choices as a person, and absolving him of much of his culpability. Howard includes a disclaimer near the beginning of their pieces that the media scandal surrounding Trudeau’s use of blackface is both appropriate and beneficial, before spending the rest of his piece justifying Trudeau’s actions. Most columnists however, including Thompson and Mann, make it a point to state that acts of racism in contemporary Canada are so normal that it shouldn’t be newsworthy.

With this perspective being championed, it’s unsurprising that some right-leaning columnists accuse Trudeau and the Liberal Party of “buying up” and “silencing” the mainstream media.

Summary

As we move further away from the centre, we also move away from pathos into logos. Both the right and the left start fitting aspects of the incidents into their own worldviews, building an internally consistent (but incompatible with the other) narrative around the controversy. As with the other party leaders, no one seems inclined to take into account Trudeau’s own statements on the matter and his apologies.

Responses at the Margins

At the edges of the Overton Window are perspectives that are still shared by some portion of the population, but not enough to be granted column space in mainstream newspapers. For the last tier of analysis, I will be looking at two Canadian subreddits, one that is far-left and one that is alt-right, and their perspectives on the scandal. There are smaller, more extreme communities that undoubtedly hold other views. However, after this point, the communities splinter too much into subgroups for me to provide appropriately representative samples of all the perspectives given, making this the last useful unit of analysis.

Canadian Reddit: A Primer

Reddit describes itself as the “front page of the internet”. It is a community of many themed sub-forums called subreddits, where people can submit links, text, photos, and videos to be voted on by others. Redditors can also comment on the submissions, and comments can also be voted on.

In 2013, Pew Research found that 6% of online adults use Reddit, and men are twice as likely as women to be Reddit users. Since then, Reddit’s userbase has almost tripled in size, from 136 million in 2014 to 355 million today (2019).

There are many Canadian subreddits, with the largest being r/canada, which has around 574,000 subscribers. r/canada is widely seen as the “default” Canadian subreddit, and maintains a “comprehensive” list of other Canadian subreddits. This list, which has over a hundred entries, does not include the two subreddits that I will be looking at: r/metacanada and r/onguardforthee.

This is because r/metacanada is an alt-right subreddit, which had historically shared many moderators with r/canada, and r/onguardforthree was made originally to whistle blow on the cross-contamination between the two subreddits’ mods (volunteer administrative staff). [source; source]

r/onguardforthee subsequently became the left-leaning political subreddit for Canadians. Because they don’t appear on r/canada’s list, they are communities that have to be specifically sought out by believers in their respective ideologies. This makes them a good site for analysis for more extreme opinions. Both subreddits have had multiple submissions about the blackface scandal, with many submissions yielding rich discussion in their comments section. For this post, I will be looking at the two most populous comment sections under submissions related to the scandal in each subreddit.

r/MetaCanada

r/metacanada is Canada’s subreddit for supporters of the alt-right. It has around 32,000 subscribers. In r/metacanada , most of the comments were under links to fringe news sources, such as The Post Millennial and The Hill Times. In this subreddit, posters seem to share with National Post columnists a fixation on Trudeau’s hypocrisy. In addition, many posters have an obsession with the way that Canada is seen on the world stage, and is convinced that Canada appears weak to other world leaders. This they primarily attribute to Trudeau’s nature, which is often described as effeminate.

One heavily upvoted post is a screenshot of Trudeau’s twitter, where he changed his profile picture to one where he is talking to a black man. The two most upvoted comments were both very sarcastic, with one being “But I have black friends!” in quotation marks, and the other being “Wait, which one is Justin? The black guy or the white guy??”

The second post is an article bemoaning Canada’s humiliation on the world stage at having a prime minister who has worn blackface. Many comments expressed the sentiment that this was just the last in a line of humiliations that Canada has faced on the world stage, and belief that the election was rigged (either through changing the ballots, or simply by “flooding Toronto with immigrants en mass[sic]” in Trudeau’s favour.

r/OnGuardForThee

r/onguardforthee is Canada’s left-leaning subreddit. Twice the size of r/metacanada, it has around 74,000 subscribers. r/onguardforthee also seems more accepting of fringe news sources than more mainstream Canadian subreddits.

The most popular comment threads are under posts speculating about the manufacturedness around the blackface controversy. In one post, the link directs to a blog post speculating on the creation of the scandal, and asserts that the original photo was tipped to a novice American journalist by the conservative party. In a second, the original poster opines that “actual black people have more pressing concerns,” and that the controversy is continually being fanned by “white conservative media”.

Under both posts, many commenters express support for the theories, write comments implying that these theories were obvious or expected, and occasionally contribute to the theories. Typical comments include things like “Keep investigating this. I think you’re on the right track,” and “My dental hygienist happened to be a black woman… Her anger was that this would completely distract from discussing real problems.”, as well as some digressions into how acceptable blackface was in the 90s and early 2000s.

Summary

There are clear linkages in thought between r/metacanada and the National Post columnists, as well as between r/onguardforthee and Star columnists.

MetaCanadians and National Post columnists both pointed to the hypocrisy that Trudeau displayed in the scandal. However, MetaCanadians’ obsession with Canada’s presentation on the world stage is unique. MetaCanadians also seem to support Trump in large numbers, although some express worry that he will bully Trudeau into less beneficial deals. This may explain some of the preoccupation with the world stage.

r/onguardforthee and Star columnists both work to relieve Trudeau of much of his culpability, although they do so using different means. While the Star talks about systemic, entrenched racism that Trudeau is a part of, r/onguardforthee’s model of the world is one where conservatives are more agentic, and have made a mountain out of a molehill to discredit Trudeau.

Conclusion

To map out all the perspectives on the blackface incident explored in this paper, it would look something like this:

At the centre, the scandal’s explanation is bland and unsatisfying, and as it radiates out it starts being incorporated into some established ideological narratives, which are self-consistent but incompatible with each other. While it can be incorporated into a narrative, the scandal is compelling. Past a certain point, however, the contortions that the scandal and the ideology must undergo to remain consistent with each other become too difficult to follow, and coherency drops off sharply at that point.

Based on this specific case, it seems like the Overton Window on racism seems to interrogate the degree of personal culpability. On one end, one can not be expected to defy societal forces (e.g. a privileged upbringing), and on the other, societal forces are illusory, and may even be manipulated for personal benefit.

The range illustrated here doesn’t quite map on to what I thought to be traditional left/right-wing notions of racism (i.e. it’s seen as a substantial force on the left while those on the right-wing think that it was all solved in the 60s basically and anyone screaming racism now is looking to get free money from the government), which becomes more evident the closer you are to the edges of the window.

Perhaps this disconnect between the actual discussion and the established narrative of what the discussion is (from my information bubble as a generic liberal university student) also exists for other contentious issues as well. If that is the case, that’s another compelling reason to read news sources from publications that don’t share your own personal politics.

Addendum

As a generic leftie goon, two right-wing sources that I follow regularly for their honesty and intelligence are Rod Dreher’s column at the American Conservative, and American Affairs Journal.

Dreher’s a very religious person who looks at the world through a very conservative but self-consistent and compassionate perspective, and he is ambivalent-to-negative about president Trump. He also shares my interest in social alienation as well, which helps.

I’ve mentioned my bafflement about AAJ’s self-identification as a right-wing news source previously, because it seems to be up to its ears in Marxist analysis, but then again where else are you going to have your contempt of Marco Rubio (and by extension the establishment Republican Party) shattered by reading his coherent economic policy analysis? So I guess it’s sort of right-wing after all.

Also, here’s another link to Ozy’s post on smart, intelligent people that are appealing to their outgroups. No harm in poking around and seeing if there’s someone tolerable with politics that you hate there.

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