American liberals have embraced Justin Trudeau as a bulwark against bigotry and a paragon of inclusivity.
They applauded when he greeted Syrian refugees at the airport, tweeted that immigrants were welcome “regardless of faith” and obliquely admonished U.S. President Donald Trump this summer for telling congresswomen of colour to “go back” to other countries. “That is not how we do things in Canada,” the Prime Minister declared. “A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian.”
Former U.S. president Barack Obama has even maintained a personal friendship with Mr. Trudeau, going for beers in Ottawa with him in May. And Joe Biden, now front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, once famously declared Mr. Trudeau guardian of the “international order” against attacks from nationalists around the world.
So revelations this week that the Liberal Leader wore blackface and brownface at least three times years ago were met with astonishment in the United States, running counter to the long-held stereotypes of Canadian earnestness and multiculturalism that Mr. Trudeau has sought to trade on. The racist acts put him in the company of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam and Alabama Governor Kay Ivey, only the most recent U.S. leaders to have been exposed for similar incidents.
“We consider Canada as a racial utopia. Particularly among African-Americans, we romanticize Canada,” said Julian Hayter, an expert in African-American history at the University of Richmond. “We have come to expect a certain amount of sincerity from Canadian liberals. They have often been portrayed and acted above these things. It was shocking and disappointing to see Trudeau engaged in this behaviour, and even more disappointing that he kept this suppressed for so long.”
Prof. Hayter said Canada’s image among black Americans is rooted in 19th-century narratives about the underground railroad, when the then-British colonies were havens for people fleeing enslavement. And American race relations have remained so caustic that Canada, for all its faults, has continued to look relatively good by comparison, he said.
The writer Roxane Gay succinctly summed up the feeling among many Americans of colour Wednesday evening, shortly after Time Magazine published the first photo of Mr. Trudeau wearing racist face paint.
“Ahh. They all do blackface,” she tweeted. “I will make a note in the file.”
The revelations about Mr. Trudeau received consistent coverage Thursday in American and other international news outlets, which typically pay virtually no attention to Canadian politics.
On Thursday afternoon, both CNN and MSNBC went live to Mr. Trudeau’s Winnipeg news conference, in which he apologized for the incidents. The story was the top item on the website of The Guardian, the British-based newspaper that has a large audience of progressives around the world. The New York Times and Washington Post also carried coverage on their homepages. The Times headlined one op-ed “The downfall of Canada’s dreamy boyfriend.”
But some observers doubted Mr. Trudeau’s history would permanently tarnish his or Canada’s image.
Ravi Perry, chair of the political science department at Howard University in Washington, said the Liberal Leader’s history of championing inclusivity issues – and his skill at building a brand around it – would weigh in his favour.
“He has a long-established record of liberal, left-leaning ideals, policies, perspectives that he has sought to engender in Canadian politics. That’s what people know,” Prof. Perry said. “People are certainly disappointed, but I certainly wouldn’t suggest folks are going to start writing him off. He’s still a progressive, particularly vis-à-vis the current President we have.”
What’s more, Prof. Perry said, Americans seem to be forgiving of such episodes. Mr. Northam faced widespread calls for his resignation from fellow Democrats earlier this year when he admitted wearing blackface as a medical student. But subsequent polls have shown his support has remained relatively solid. At a public event last month in Hampton, Va., marking the 400th anniversary of slavery, for instance, Mr. Northam received a standing ovation from a mostly black audience when he listed a series of policies meant to foster racial inclusivity.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations said Canada had built up enough goodwill through policies such as its points-based immigration system that Mr. Trudeau’s actions would not reflect on the country.
“It’s incredibly disappointing that Trudeau wore black and brownface. It’s never acceptable,” said Robert McCaw, the group’s national director of government affairs. “While this changes how we view Trudeau, it does not change how Americans view Canada.”
Mr. Trudeau might even preserve his relationship with Mr. Obama, said Prof. Hayter, because politicians of colour in the U.S. are accustomed to dealing with white counterparts that have racist incidents in their past.
“This is going to sound extremely sad and deeply cynical, but American politicians are used to negotiating political spaces with people who are accused of this on a regular basis,” he said. “The bar is so low in the United States, it’s possible for individuals accused of this to recover their careers.”
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