General

Et Tu, Justin Trudeau?

If I want you to take one thing away from this blog post, it’s that Matt Haines does not support wearing blackface. In fact, nobody who works at MattHainesWrites.com (it’s just me) supports wearing blackface.

I’ve never worn blackface and I’ll never wear blackface.

But there’s a big difference between the two halves of that sentence.

I’ll never wear blackface because…duh. I’m not an idiot. I care about other people. And I know it’s wrong. In fact, most of us know it’s wrong. I have a feeling we won’t be seeing too many pictures of people in blackface taken in 2019, because I think society is figuring this one out. Too late, yes. But we’re figuring it out.

But I’ve never worn blackface because…I’m lucky? I liked the Ninja Turtles more than I liked Bill Cosby, I guess? (I wanted to be Michelangelo, but my mom is a bad listener and bought me a Raphael costume and I’ll never 100% forgive her.)

If you asked five year old me if wearing blackface was wrong, I would have probably said, “I have a belly button,” or something else nonsensical because five year olds are kind of dumb and I was no different.

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Me as a dumb kid in a pumpkin costume.

If you asked 13 year old me if wearing blackface was wrong, I probably would have said, “No?” because I would be too dumb to know blackface had a racist origin, but smart enough to know that you asking me the question meant the answer wasn’t as obvious as it seemed.

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Justin Trudeau as a dumb 20-something year old, dressed up as someone that would fit in an Arabian Nights theme.

If you asked me the same question at 21 years old, I’m not sure I would have changed my answer much from, “No?”

I was going to school in Ithaca, New York. It was 2004 or 2005 and I was singularly focused on getting better at the trombone. My attention was not focused on racial injustice, or any injustice outside of why I couldn’t get the practice room I wanted to practice in.

(I’m embarrassed about that, by the way. I wish I would have known more about — or had an interest in — the world, but I didn’t. And I didn’t all the way until I moved to New York City, where injustice was more visible.)

I never wore blackface because…I have no idea why, but it had nothing to do with me being better than some people I know who did. I even laughed when a friend showed up to a Halloween party dressed up as Bill Cosby because…it seemed like a really good Bill Cosby costume. I didn’t know anything about Jim Crow or minstrels or white actors acting like caricatures of black people or anything like that. I just knew my friend normally didn’t look like Bill Cosby. But now he kind of looked a little more like Bill Cosby. And, Bill Cosby kind of seemed like an okay guy to dress up as. (2004 Cliff Huxtable Bill Cosby. Not…Bill Cosby Bill Cosby.)

Society had taught us white college students in Ithaca that using the “N-word,” for example, was bad. So we didn’t use it. We don’t want to be bad people, and we certainly don’t want to purposely offend other people.

But blackface? As far as I could tell, we had no idea. Maybe someone I went to school with then will say, “I had an idea,” but I had no idea.

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Justin Trudeau, presumably having learned a few things over the years.

So what do we make of all these politicians we’re discovering wore blackface years ago? — the most recent being (as of 1:54pm on September 19) the liberal Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau.

I have three thoughts:

  1. It’s really important to reiterate this: it was wrong to do. I don’t think they knew it was wrong to do, but just because we’re idiots and ignorant, doesn’t mean it wasn’t wrong.
  2. But just because it was wrong, doesn’t mean the person who did it is the racist may are quick to make them out to be. “It was something I didn’t think was racist at the time, but now I recognize it is something that is racist.” That’s what Trudeau said when he apologized and that checks out to me.
  3. On the other hand, the apologize-once-your-caught really rings hollow.

I know this has been said before, and I know this has been refuted before, but I think times really do change. That doesn’t mean wearing blackface was ever right. But it does mean that there are a lot of people who wore blackface who had no idea how wrong it was.

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Early image related to Jim Crow and the origins of blackface.

Very few of us are the kind of superhero that can have a fully-researched, fully-formed and educated opinion of the world. Certainly not in the first third of our lives, but maybe not ever.

It’s not like my group of friends in Ithaca were trying to be offensive. We were ignorant.

But we weren’t trying to be ignorant. The thing about ignorance is…it’s the default. It takes some life and some effort to shed it. Unless it becomes ingrained in a society and that society changes.

We have a long way to go when it comes to race, but — on the specific issue of blackface — I think society’s tolerance for it has, thankfully, changed.

So maybe we don’t have to jump in with these giant, “Trudeau needs to resign!” or “Trudeau is no longer an ally to minorities!” hot takes.

I bet the future is going to look back on a lot of things even the most liberal of us do today and have something to say about it.

When mainstream society looks back at the way we treat the animals we eat, for example. You cut off their tails?! You locked them in cages?! You killed all the male chicks?! You filled them with antibiotics?! You chopped down our forests?!

Most of us are guilty, at least by a strong association. Years from now, when society changes, how should we be judged?

For me, a big part of writing is learning. I’m not claiming I’m right. And I know as someone not directly attacked by blackface, I don’t need to be telling anyone else how they should be feeling.

It’s just how I feel right now. I really, really, REALLY don’t mean to offend anyone, and I hope I didn’t. I don’t have a fully-formed opinion on this — or a lot of topics — and I hope I never do. Rather, I hope it’s always just…forming. So, if you feel like I’m misguided, I’d love to hear that. Tell me how your opinion is different. Write in the comments section and let’s discuss.

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