The big news this week in politics, other than the campaign for the 43rd General Election officially starting, seems to be Mr. Trudeau’s photographs of him in “blackface” or “brownface” when he was younger.
I’ll admit, at first, I didn’t really understand the big deal about this. These weren’t obviously done to ridicule those races, but rather as creating a means to identify him with the various people he was portraying (Harry Belafonte, in one case, Aladdin in the other). Then I read more about it and it was pointed out that changing your skin color, even as a way of encouraging easy identification, is, in a sense, suggesting that the skin color is what is most identifiable about a person.
It took me a while to understand that, because, let’s be honest, when you see a person, you can’t help but see if their skin is a different color. It’s more obvious than eye color, especially from a distance. But I eventually figured out that there’s a difference between physically identifying a person has a skin color and identifying as a person because of their skin color. Even if no disrespect is intended, it is, in a sense, reducing who they are to that one aspect.
What really made it clear for me was thinking about impressionists. They show that the skin color really doesn’t need to be a factor. Not if you’re doing a good enough impression. I’ve seen many impressionists take on the characters of Eddie Murphy or James Brown on stage. Do they need to run off and paint themselves up to do it? No. Can I still identify them? Absolutely. Did a younger Justin Trudeau need to put on blackface to do Harry Belefonte? No, and that he did shows a disrespect toward the actual person that should be criticized.
But doing something wrong doesn’t mean we should vilify a person for life. There’s a meme going around FaceBook right now, comparing Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Scheer, noting that there’s significant evidence that Mr. Trudeau has learned since then, and questioning whether there’s any evidence that Mr. Scheer has learned something from his earlier positions on gay marriage, abortion, or racism. It’s not quite a fair post, because a simple lack of evidence doesn’t mean that nothing has changed. After all, many of us have come to various realizations since the 90s of how some of the things we enjoyed or engaged in were probably hurtful to others, even if it wasn’t intended. That doesn’t means we go around with a hair-whip, rather we learn and strive to be better people in the future.
And that’s rather my point. Learning, at its core, is always an internal activity. What we learn adjusts who we are, even if it may not change our outward appearance. So how do we reward learning, if we can’t test for it? Perhaps the best course of action is to always assume someone has learned until you see evidence otherwise—and when you do, that becomes the opportunity to teach them. I’ll be thinking on this more in the next few days, but until then, enjoy the read!