Things that Matter

Yesterday I heard that our prime minister had been photographed wearing blackface make-up. He was in costume for a school fundraiser with a theme of Arabian Nights. That was in 2001.

The media went ballistic. No need to speak of crisis climate, health care, housing or any other of those possible election topics. The prime minister wore make-up that portrayed him as blackface. Later it became brownface. And then a second instance was reported. Now there seems to be evidence that there were three occasions when he appeared with blackface. This is the most important of pre-election news.

I don’t suppose the prime minister had bad intentions at the time and he has since apologized. He says he did not then think that his behaviour was racist but now he does and he deeply regrets what he did.

Racism is a serious problem and I’m glad that times have changed so that we now have to be much more careful about what we say and do.  Not long ago, things were very different. When I was young it was traditional at our Presbyterian church for the men of the church to do a minstrel performance at the annual Christmas concert. We all looked forward to it. I believe my father, who had a splendid bass voice, was wearing blackface when he sang “Ol’ Man River.” He didn’t think he was mocking anybody. He admired Paul Robeson more than any other person at the time. And, at that time, we all thought that imitation was the highest form of flattery. I think that proverb may go back to Marcus Aurelius, but we know better now.

Wearing blackface or brownface make-up as part of an Arabian Nights event would have seen by most people as a costume, not as mockery. Similarly, I did not think I was mocking the Roma people when I dressed my young daughter as a gypsy on Halloween. Nor was she mocking homeless people when she wore a hobo costume. My father-in-law, a very tall man of imposing bearing liked nothing better than donning a dress and a hat for a New Year’s Eve party. My mother-in—law did not feel she was being mocked — and she happily helped him apply his rouge and lipstick. She thought it was funny.

The truth is, we used to kind of like dressing up. We liked pretending to be something that we were not. It was fun.

When I spoke of these things to my daughter, she replied that, confusing as it may be, the pendulum may need to swing the other way for a while. “The ‘we’ you are speaking about,” she said, “are all members of a specific ethnic and cultural group, and perhaps more conversation about how white people feel about white people’s behaviour is not the top priority.”  

That made me step back and rethink my own privilege. Born in Vancouver in 1942 to British-born parents in a comfortable neighbourhood. Being female had some limitations but, overall, it was an extremely fortunate situation that I took for granted. I had access to education and work opportunities that many others lacked. I did not question that.

Yes, times are changing — and it is a very good thing that we old people must now become more sensitive and more aware.

Writers now have to be very conscious of appropriating the voice of others: non-indigenous people cannot write about indigenous people. Men should not write in a woman’s voice. We have to forget the advice of one of our Parliamentary poets and others who advised us to “write about what you don’t know.” On the contrary, these days we must all be careful never to pretend to be what we are not.

But I regret some of the limitations. Laurence Olivier could not now give his brilliant Othello performance and, although the theatre allows for lots of gender-switching, it’s not likely that a white man will ever be cast in that role.  Soon we will get rid of the Dame traditionally a woman played by a large man in the Christmas pantomimes. From the other perspective, though, it was wonderful to see the two women who played the lead male roles in Coriolanus at Bard on the Beach this summer; it was a gripping performance in which I was mostly oblivious of sex or race.

Privileged Caucasian people, of whom I am one, cannot these days give our imagination free reign. Rather, we must mostly stay within the confines of our own narrow little lives. We will learn to do that.

In the meantime, it’s heartening to see that the young people I know are conscious and respectful of diversity. They deplore racism and are clear that wearing blackface make-up is wrong.


They are also concerned about the state of the planet and, as we approach an election, they want to know more about the platforms of all the political parties on important issues such as climate change, health care, funding for education, and so on, rather than being bombarded with media reports of “scandals.”


This is an important election. Would it not be better to focus our discussions on the substantive measures that truly could improve the lives of disadvantaged and racialized residents in Canada?


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