So, Justin Trudeau is in hot water as images of him in “brownface” 18 years ago have surfaced. And although I’m disappointed, I’m not surprised. Well, maybe a little that it was only 18 years. Why? Because this is an example of how deeply the social construct of race has embedded itself into our global consciousness.
Yes, social construct. Race is not real. You can read more about this in my colleague’s series.
Race is a social construct
In the meantime, let’s review.
The human race (that’s the only scientifically sound use of the word) originated on the African continent. Since then, humans have migrated all over the world, and – in case you’re not aware of this – our skin colours have changed over thousands of years depending on the amount of sunlight we were exposed to where we settled.
Skin colour is about melanin, not a different race. But that’s not what most of us have been taught – not by mainstream education anyway.
A few things have helped race as a social construct survive, such as:
- The African slave trade, which was built on the idea of different races so people would be ok with treating another human being in such a deplorable way, and those in the trade could continue to make money.
- Faulty science using the size of human skulls and assigning intelligence accordingly.
- Colonization which reinforced the ideas of light skin being superior as populations were decimated.
The result is a skewed perspective on history (and the present) built on faulty and sinister ideas that people have more or less value because of the colour of our skin. (Learn more here.)
Brownface and other forms of racism
Which brings us to today’s scandal involving our Prime Minister.
If we zoom out (not making excuses, just providing a bigger context) and see that the world we have grown up in reinforces this faulty idea of darker skin equaling a lesser human being, and that we live in societies built on systemic racism (sanctioned racism in policy, practice and structure) then it shouldn’t be a stretch to understand why someone might choose to dress up like people with brown or black skin, or from a different culture (usually also with darker skin) and think it’s fun or funny.
I know a little about this. When I was 11 I got my hands on what at that time was called a Gypsy or fortune teller costume. It was 1981, and I wore it to a Halloween party. No one in my family or in my circle of friends thought it was inappropriate; the Roma people also being an oppressed group, liberties were taken, just like for brownface and Blackface. It wasn’t until many years later that I learned that the term we used then is racist, built on years of oppression and othering, and that the costume was hurtful. I’m ashamed that I wore it.
I’m not suggesting that we give people the thumbs up to do inappropriate and hurtful things just because they are unaware. Impact doesn’t change just because intentions are good.
What I want to point out today is that the context we live in has taught us that things like this are OK.
So, while we may vilify the individual and demand apologies, let’s not forget that we need to change the system; the system which is built on the belief that white is superior.
Changing what we know and see
We need to work together to raise awareness about race as a social construct so we can really see each other for who we are, not who we have been taught we are.
When we do this work, we will collectively arrive at a place where we know and understand that all people are created equal, that skin colour is about melanin, not value, and that there is only one race – the human race.
When that happens, we will also be able to eradicate racism: Because even though race is a social construct, racism is real and impacts people every day in a variety of ways. Including things meant to be lighthearted and fun.
That is our work.
Are you ready?