I live in a part of world where people of color represent a small minority of the population, and TBH the issue of racism is non-existent in my surrounding (or severely understated, I can't judge). Hence, my understanding is limited.

I'm trying to understand what's wrong with costuming yourself as a fictional character? What exactly in the affair with the Canadian Prime minister's past is disrespectful? I've been to masquerades from childhood to college, it didn't come to me that masking as an Indian (and coloring yourself red) or Bruce Lee can be offending or racist? I will likely be in such a situation in the future, should I avoid such disguises?


6 Answers 6


Blackface has a history of being a method for expressing racial caricatures and stereotypes. It was intended to be humorous to white audiences and demeaning towards the black people being depicted.

In a more modern context, using blackface demonstrates an ignorance of history and insensitivity even when not deployed with an intent to caricature. It also invokes the privilege of using a skin color when it is convenient, when others are discriminated against daily for having that same skin color.

Reactions to blackface are not universal, but in the US and Canada it is considered very disrespectful.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation about the history and effect of "blackfacing" has been moved to chat.
    – Philipp
    Commented Sep 20, 2019 at 19:07

Preface: As an Arab I don't particularly see any problem with his costume. I've put on white makeup before as part of a vampire costume. But blackface wasn't really a thing in Arab culture the way it was in the West. I was more amused by the fact that he looks like a fake tan addict than offended by any kind of cultural...insensitivity?

Blackface was a big deal in the West and the echoes of that still resonate today, which is why people shun costumes where they'd have to colour their skin black. It has negative connotations, which has an impact on this situation and why people are outraged by it. Also, he's coloured himself a lot darker than most Arabs in that photo which is possibly contributing to it. Other than that it's a pretty accurate costume and it doesn't really have any exaggerated stereotype features which were part of the blackface skits.

Part of the reason for the outrage is that Trudeau is the Prime Minister of a fairly liberal country and is leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, and so this is scandalous because of who he is and the causes he champions. "He should have known better" is something that is getting thrown around a fair bit. Whether that is a fair statement or not I will leave to people who were in Canada in the late 1990s/early 2000s. Appropriate behaviour varies massively by time and region.

I would suggest avoiding these kinds of costumes as people can be quite sensitive about them.

Final personal note: I wrote this comment since someone wanted to know what an actual Arab thought of the situation. I'm not going to bandy around terms like SJW and culture of outrage, it's not particularly helpful to debate. However I do think it's sad that a lot of cultural appreciation is branded appropriation. If I want to dress up as a white superhero or a Western supernatural creature (like a vampire, or a Norse god etc) it is acceptable. I don't see why the reverse can't be done. As an Arab, raised in the Middle East, I don't feel any less privileged than the average white European. I can completely understand the reasons for outrage around anything that evokes blackface when put against the backdrop of slavery, racism and the skits that used to be performed. But one has to draw the line somewhere. If a person dresses up in a costume and makes themselves up to match it with no intention of causing offence but merely taking the role of a specific, fictional character, I don't see why it's an issue.

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    +1 this is the kind of answer I was hoping to see. Very measured and neutral. Thank you for your perspective.
    – F1Krazy
    Commented Sep 20, 2019 at 10:48
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    -1 The sentence "I can completely understand the reasons for outrage around anything that evokes blackface when put against the backdrop of slavery, racism and the skits that used to be performed" is completely undermined by the rest of the answer Commented Sep 21, 2019 at 9:32
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    I am not sure that cultural appropriate is what's considered to be the problem here. The very idea that cultural appropriation is an offense is extremely new and hasn't been tested by time yet. As late as in-a-Sopranos-episode it was used an an example of an absurd thinking rather than as a culturally accepted norm. The distaste for "blackface" is much older.
    – grovkin
    Commented Sep 22, 2019 at 4:24
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    "Blackface was a big deal in the West" - it was only a big deal in the USA. In Europe, it was no problem (although people are now trying to make it a problem).
    – Sjoerd
    Commented Sep 22, 2019 at 7:56
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    "blackface" has been an issue in the UK for decades. The BBC ran a bizarre light entertainment show - "The Black and White Minstrell Show" from 1958 - 1978, with ever-growing protests against it from c. 1967 onwards. It has been wildly socially unacceptable for all my adult life. Commented Oct 28, 2019 at 0:48

This is heavily dependent on cultural context

Being Canadian and therefore living close to the USA, is in this case the context.

During the early 19xx years, racism was very normal, and one of the ways this was expressed was with Blackface, which was often used similar to how clown makeup is used to day. It wasn't flattering. Therefore, his activities remind everyone of that racist time. I don't believe he's actually racist, but the association is still there and politically.. unfortunate for him.

Why is this a big deal now and not 20 years ago?

Basically, because there's a lot more communication due to social media and the internet. For centuries, until some 5-ish years ago, where I live, the Netherlands, we had something which is physically the same as blackface (Zwarte Piet), but it had grown from a totally different orgin - it didn't refer to skin color, instead being based on how they'd look like after crawling to a chimney - in an age where the primary means of heating in your home was with a fire in a hearth. Chimney sweepers just became black from the soot.

However, now people are considering it racist, because they're applying USA cultural standards to our own historical culture. So the context is changing, and in the USA cultural context, it indeed looks racist.

I'm making this example mostly because you seem to come from another culture where racism isn't prevalent.

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    According to Wikipedia "Zwarte Piet is black because he is a Moor from Spain", but also "between 80 and 88% of the Dutch public did not perceive Zwarte Piet as racist". Commented Sep 20, 2019 at 11:29
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    According to The Guardian, the "sooty face" is the more contemporary attempt to make it not skin-color-based. Commented Sep 20, 2019 at 11:33
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    Well, the guardian doesn't cite a source, while the dutch wikipedia version does. That makes the wikipedia more trustworthy. And while that's right now an attempt to distance from the perceived racism, actual chimney sweepers would get a lot dirtier than that.
    – Gloweye
    Commented Sep 20, 2019 at 12:25
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    Note: All these sources are dutch. historien.nl/de-omstreden-zwarte-piet "current costume inspired by 16th century moor pages". Earlier costume was often turkish or indian. volkskrant.nl/columns-opinie/… "[physical characteristics] are similar to moorish heraldic representation". Those are the only two links to moorish orgins in the under the "Looks" header. All of these quotes are my translations, slightly paraphrased for conciseness. NL wiki article: nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zwarte_Piet
    – Gloweye
    Commented Sep 20, 2019 at 12:51
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    -1 this does not resemble a person coming out of a chimney; chimneys don't give people bad wigs and red lips. Also, racism is still prevalent in the 20xx years. Cultural context does matter, but looking at the context of Zwarte Piet, all sources seem to point to the fact that it's a caricaturistic depiction of a black person originating during dutch colonialism.
    – tim
    Commented Sep 21, 2019 at 19:50

"What is wrong with Justin Trudeau (or anyone) masquerading as Aladdin?"

There's nothing inherently wrong with it.

The problem is that some people seem to be incapable of seeing the difference between:

  • Dressing up as a caricature of an African-American, and acting out the associated stereotypes.
  • Dressing up as a specific public figure, whether it be Barack Obama, Bill Cosby, or Michael Jackson, and acting like that person.

The first activity is highly inappropriate and blatantly racist.

There really isn't anything wrong with the second activity. But whenever a white person does it, certain groups of people take it upon themselves to "defend" people that they think can't defend themselves and they treat the event as if it were the first type of activity.

Trudeau didn't dress up as a caricature of an Arab and make fun of Arab stereotypes. He dressed up as a specific famous fictional person that just happened to be Arabic.

It wasn't Trudeau that was in the wrong. It is his accusers themselves that are the racists.

They certainly don't seem to be complaining about celebrities that use "cultural appropriation" and the pop magazines that praise them: 8 Asian Celebs Who Went Blonde And Nailed It. They would never attack Mel Brown for wearing a blonde wig on AGT. But should a straight white male ever imitate a specific non-white person, watch them jump.


What you really need to ask is who is it that considers it to be wrong? In my observation, it's only a very small minority of the terminally politically correct. Most people simply don't see anything wrong with it, and indeed, have probably done something similar.

Unfortunately, some small fraction of the media know they can use incidents like this for their own profit, by turning into a story with fake outrage &c. The inexplicable part, to me, is why people like Trudeau don't just tell the reporters to go jump in a lake, instead of apologizing.

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    --1 " Most people simply don't see anything wrong with it, and indeed, have probably done something similar" - including the millions of descendants of African slaves? Commented Sep 21, 2019 at 9:35
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    @DaveGremlin I’m not sure millions of descendants of African slaves will see this as offensive. Some might but not all. There’s some truth to this answer whether you agree with it or not.
    – NuWin
    Commented Sep 21, 2019 at 9:43
  • @DaveGremlin, yes, "including the millions of descendants of African slaves". Conk was a popular method of removing hair kinks. Consider how many people of African descent today wear wigs with straight or wavy hair. And look how many dye their hair brown, or even blonde. But no one finds this offensive to Europeans. Specifically, name an African-descent politician that was election shamed for looking non-African. Commented Jul 10, 2020 at 0:31
  • @RayButterworth - You need to look at the power relationships here. People at the bottom of the heap imitating those at the top is about aspiration; people at the top imitating those at the bottom is mockery. Commented Jul 15, 2020 at 18:34
  • @DaveGremlin, so you're saying that Africans that imitate superficial European attributes consider themselves at the bottom and think that denying their natural appearance will magically make them better people? That sounds like far worse behaviour than dressing up as a famous fictional character. Commented Jul 15, 2020 at 21:52

It is wrong on a number of level

  1. black face is offensive, particularly in former slaving countries (which includes Canada)

  2. Aladdin isn't black. Even the fictional Aladdin isn't from africa.

  3. Trudeau was dressing up as Aladdin, where Aladdin for some reason decided to put on a black face.

  • The picture is black and white. Most likely the paint is blue, not black. Commented Sep 20, 2019 at 17:37
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    @JonathanReez: odd that Trudeau didn't make that point... Commented Sep 20, 2019 at 17:49
  • He probably couldn't prove it so chose the safe option Commented Sep 20, 2019 at 17:55
  • The paint might have been blue if he were cosplaying the Genie, but he was clearly cosplaying Aladdin.
    – F1Krazy
    Commented Sep 20, 2019 at 20:18
  • @F1Krazy: It is possible.. You should have advised Trudeau to say that. Commented Sep 20, 2019 at 20:21

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