The act of donning someone’s race as a costume – whether as a joke or to pay tribute to someone you admire – is racially insensitive at best.
Does it make you a racist? The answer to that question may differ depending on the intent behind your actions.
Blackface is in the public eye after photos surfaced of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in costume at an Arabian Nights-themed party 20 years ago. Here in St. Albert, fire chief Bernd Gretzinger is under fire for a photo of him dressed like Lenny Kravitz at a party three years ago, blackface and all.
Here’s the difference between the two: Gretzinger realized long ago the photo was inappropriate and, he told the Gazette, unacceptable. A year ago, he removed the photo from his Facebook page as he came to the realization it was racially insensitive. Last week, he opened up to his friends on Facebook and apologized for the photo.
That apology appears to have prompted someone to unearth the photo and send it anonymously to Edmonton-area media. The ensuing backlash and national coverage saw Gretzinger suspended without pay for two weeks, while city chief administrative officer Kevin Scoble issued a wishy-washy statement that staff are being asked to reflect on the city’s culture and values.
But who cares? Why does it matter? Aren’t we too oversensitive these days? Who was he hurting? What’s next – we can’t dress up for Halloween parties any more? What about black people who dress up as white people?
All of these questions came from people who read our coverage of Gretzinger’s photo. Many of those same questions floated around in the wake of Trudeau’s scandal.
For that last question, let’s make this clear: white people have not historically been victimized, marginalized or oppressed by black people in Canada. Dressing up as a white person does not carry the weight of racism that dressing up as a black person does.
Ultimately, even in Canada in 2019, many people of visibly different races are made to feel like outsiders because of their skin tone. Generally speaking, if you are white, you don’t have to worry about being told to go back to your country, being made fun of for your race, or having your existence in Canada turned into an election issue. If you paint your face black, it’s done with the knowledge you can go home at the end of the day and wash it off, without having the burden of people commenting on or targeting you for your race.
The irony of Gretzinger’s punishment is that he did the right thing. He came to the realization on his own that he had been wrong. He freely issued an apology, instead of trying to hide the photo out of embarrassment. That is the sort of response we hope for as a society: people learn, they grow, and when they do something wrong, they apologize and work to make amends. Those are the sorts of values parents try to instill in our children.
Gretzinger clearly holds those values, and as that old saying goes, when you know better, you do better. So is it going to ruin your Halloween? No. After all, there are plenty of ways to pay tribute to a beloved musician, plenty of costumes you can wear, without painting your face black in the process.