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Perspectives on “Brownface,” from a brown-faced person

by Varda Nisar October 1, 2019
Perspectives on “Brownface,” from a brown-faced person

It is almost starting to feel that in the  #MeToo era, you can’t react quickly enough to any story linked to sexism, harassment, racism, etc – and that’s a good thing. It’s high time that survivors and victims of sexual assault have this safe space where they instantly have trust and public opinion on their side. Even if, in reality, getting an actual recourse of actions against the perpetrators is a little too much to ask. Remember Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey-Ford?

But what has been lost in this knee-jerk reaction, is the time to reflect – before, during, after.  It’s like once the public condemnation has come down, there is little room for anything else. And this is where it becomes dangerous.

The latest, of course, has been the Justin Trudeau brownface debacle. And following the trend that has been set forth, let me firstly make an exaggerated, arm waving, red faced denunciation of his actions. We are talking about the year 2001 here, Mr. Prime Minister – I know it wasn’t the age of woke but it wasn’t even the age of utter disconnect with global discourses. Coming from a political background, one would assume (though why should we?) that you would have been more sensitized to the issues of race, stereotyping and the deep emotions of hurt and abuse that are associated with these actions.

The any-other-colour-except-your-own face has a terrible history. It has been implicit in creating ridicule simply for the sake of laughter and amusement. It is demeaning to those of us whose identities are reduced to our colour only. The revelation of these images has given rise to a great debate about who Trudeau really is. There are accusations of racism, and of course statements of how unfit he is to be the leader of this country. And all of this is justified. We need to be held accountable for our actions.

But here, I want to move beyond Trudeau and this specific incident. I want to take a moment to remember that we are the sum-total of our actions and thoughts. Not one action. Not one thought. The sum-total of all our actions, since the time we are mature enough to make our own decisions to the day we die.

I realize that in such a reactionary world this has become an unpopular opinion, but it is precisely why we need to pay attention to this. One action doesn’t define us, because if that was the case, then I am quite certain that none of us would be free of charge. What’s more, what constitutes right from wrong, socially acceptable behavior, attitude and norms are constantly evolving, as we become more aware of the diversity of identities that exists around us.

We also need to consider at this point whether one action from the past is all it takes to discount the evolution that we might have made as a person since then. Is there no room to recognize that people grow and learn from their mistakes?

Again, I feel I must emphasize here that this doesn’t discount Trudeau whose privileges should have made him more aware of various social considerations.

Moreover, with a highly-charged political environment, these stories have the effect of distracting one from the more serious question. Was brownface stupid? Yes, a hundred times yes. But, is it as worth our attention as much as immigration policy, climate change, the refugee crisis? No. A thousand times no.

Am I positioning one issue above others? No! What I am simply saying is that the tendency of getting swept away in the social media world is far too great, while the current political situation demands that we do just the opposite – that we stay anchored and vigilant. That one individual’s stupidity and lack of sensitization to other people’s identity doesn’t let us become insensitive in return to the impact our lack of attention can have on millions of others.

As a brown person, who because of her student status has no voice in the outcome of the Canadian election, I feel it is critical that we maintain focus on the issues that go beyond this. And yes, one can correctly argue that such incidents pile up to bigger crimes of violence against minorities, which is why we need to move forward now and look out for and work against those greater structures of violence.


Graphic by @sundaeghost

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