Here it is again: another prurient offering of some politician or celebrity grinning like a moron in blackface.
And here I am again, pulled despite myself, to click on the link that will show the tawdry image. Once again, I will join millions of people in a phenomenon comedian Sarah Silverman calls “righteousness porn”.
We will sit back and bask in the subject’s humiliation and shame, the media’s and Twitter’s searing outrage, and the inevitable apology that the subject prays will stem the possible hemorrhaging of what had been the day before a vibrant public career.
Once again, the media would have succeeded in achieving – well, what exactly?
This time, it is Pierre Trudeau, Canada’s dashing young prime minister. On September 18, 2019, Trudeau apologized after Time magazine posted a photo of his crime on its website. The photo shows Trudeau wearing brownface and a turban when he was a school teacher in 2001. He reportedly wore the costume for a party themed “Arabian Nights”. Trudeau, to his credit, quickly disclosed that he had also put on makeup when he sang "Day O" for a talent show when he was in high school. The travesty!
“I should have known better,” Trudeau admitted during a press conference, “but I didn’t.”
And there he stood with his limpid brown eyes, square jaw and pouty lower lip, “deeply” regretting that lapse in judgment that he clearly did not know he was supposed to have.
Justin Trudeau is, I must say, an appealing subject: handsome, charming, liberal, and by most accounts, sincere. I would have forgiven him immediately - had there been anything to forgive. I personally am not in the business of monitoring the amount of makeup a costume may permissibly have before it crosses over into a racist act.
I’m going to be honest: my outrage can be reliably measured by the political persuasion of the offender – as in all things race-based. A lot of us barely raised an eyebrow when Harry Connick, Jr. was outed in a stupid blackface skit after he had criticized a blackface performance on some televised talent show. I mean, everyone knows Harry Connick Jr. loves black people!
On the other hand, take Megan Kelly, the former Fox News host best known for her obsessive, unhinged insistence that Santa Claus was (is?) white. I admit feeling downright gleeful when her brief career with NBC imploded after she defended blackface. Her downfall came in the wake of her (admittedly reasonable) argument that suggested that in some instances dressing as a black person or minority could be considered a tribute. In other words, depending on the mindset and intent of the person wearing the costume, she blindly insisted, not all blackface or brownface is racist.
Let’s all be honest: there is some objective truth to that statement.
But Kelly had made herself so odious during her Fox News tenure, so fundamentally unsound on matters of race, that all she did was open a door to her own long-awaited comeuppance. As righteousness porn goes, I found that particular blackface scandal particularly satisfying. And that moron didn’t even wear blackface!
Which just goes to show you: we really don't need to see these stupid photos.
The list of prominent imbeciles whose personal histories include parading around in blackface is long. And growing. And, of course, just the tip of the iceberg. But why are we doing this? What’s in it for us as a society? What does it say about the person? What does it say about us?
Blackface, brownface, whiteface or whatever, at the end of the day a person’s record speaks for itself.
To the best of our ability, let’s try to focus on that.