Justin Trudeau’s blackface scandal was shocking news for many after its emergence during the 2019 Canadian federal election.
First elected as prime minister in 2015, Trudeau had become one of Canada’s biggest international stars. Particularly in the U.S., where his supposed left-leaning progressive stances were juxtaposed with newly elected President Donald Trump.
The blackface scandal called into question the ways Canada is mythologized as a post-racial society. According to Philip S.S. Howard, Canadian “postracialism is characterized by its roots in a national claim to egalitarianism that is partly forged through an ostensible contrast to American racism.”
However, it is Trudeau’s subsequent apology that provides the more revaling insight into the ways that Canada maintains this illusion of a post-racial society. He directed his words to all “racialized Canadians who face discrimination every single day in their lives even in a country like Canada.” The use of the word “racialized” is peculiar, and raises some larger questions that need to be addressed, since it was Black communities that were specifically mocked by Trudeau.
Who are “racialized” Canadians? Are they Canadians who experience racial discrimination? Are there racialized Canadians who do not experience racial discrimination? Are racialized Canadians many different religions, nationalities and cultures? Are there pre-racialized or non-racialized Canadians? Are racialized Canadians Canadian? Trudeau did acknowledge anti-Black racism, the racist history of blackface and contrition for not knowing that it is wrong to darken skin.
Moreover, he was expressing his understanding of “racialized” Canadians as specifically being non-white people. This raises some additional questions that also need to be addressed, such as, are there pre-racialized or non-racialized Canadians? Are white communities “non-racialized” or “pre-racialized”? What is the relationship between the conceptualization of non-whiteness as “racialized” and the “post-racial” imagining of Canadian society?
The use of “racialized” interchangeably with non-white is particularly confusing when understanding the difference between race and racism. These are concepts that are related but also very distinct. During Trudeau’s first term, Canada witnessed several examples of how whiteness and non-whiteness are both accepted and reinforced as racialized.
The whiteness and non-whiteness of sports are racialized, such as the Toronto Raptor’s 2019 NBA championship victory and the ways it was lauded for capturing a diverse fan base. This praise for diversity undoubtedly referred to a non-white fanbase as headlines cheered: “The Raptors’ fan base is multicultural. Why are folks surprised?” “Represented by Raptors: How one team connects the most diverse city in the world.” “The Toronto Raptors Are the North — and Everywhere Else.” “Raptors and fans are the ‘real Toronto’: Loud, multicultural and hungry for historic win.” “Faces in the crowd: Raptors draw a diverse fan base to Jurassic Park.” “Raptors fans represent Toronto’s diversity.”
The combination of Toronto’s racial and ethnic diversity with the Raptors’ diversity — a team of non-white, mostly Black, athletes — was part of the success for Toronto, if not all of Canada. The victory was in winning a championship while showcasing how the celebration of diversity can build towards a supposed racial harmony where race need not be acknowledged.
This is contrasted with Canada’s national sport of hockey which is largely seen to be a sport of white Canada (see also George and Darril Fosty’s Black Ice: The Lost History of the Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes, 1895-1925). Disgraced commentator Don Cherry lost his job in 2019 for his explicit racism towards immigrants when questioning their appreciation of Canada. Yet for 40 years, Cherry was a staple for hockey in Canada, and consistently referred to “good Canadian boys” (read: white youth) when talking about the way hockey should be played.
For 34 of those years, he proclaimed his bigoted views as integral to Canadian pride on the CBC. The tax dollars of non-white Canadians funded their government to tell them every Saturday night that Canada and hockey are for white people.
The whiteness and non-whiteness of economic status is racialized, such as Toronto’s most recent data showing a highly segregated city. This is in spite of the praise the city receives — and gives itself — as a multicultural centre (as outlined by Michael Doucet).
The city is besieged with long-established inequalities in access to education, economic stability, and adequate housing and health. These disparities are concentrated geographically as well as along racial, class and gender lines. It reveals what many have known for a long time about Toronto (if not all of Canada): wealth is white, wealth is racialized.
Simultaneously, “poor ghetto youth,” “at-risk youth,” or “gun violence in poor communities” are codes for Black communities; indeed, poverty is black, poverty is racialized. This is to say that privilege and disadvantage are racialized.
Like the U.S., structural racism in Canada manifests itself to Black communities through a variety of mechanisms. This includes their continued over-representation in the legal system, over concentration in impoverished communities, underemployment, and lack of access to education. An anti-racist approach upends the racialization of prison, which is particularly evident with the over-representation of Black and Indigenous peoples incarcerated for marijuana possession. This reality has remained unchanged even after Trudeau and the Liberals legalized recreational use of the substance.
Understanding the ways societal relations are racialized is not exclusively, or primarily for that matter, about whether or not an individual, such as the prime minister, is racist.
Rather it is through the conferring of privilege and disadvantage based on race which determines if Canada — as a nation and state — is racist. Individual actors within the political, social and economic institutions of the state are allowed, encouraged and/or required to maintain this status quo of racism.
Therefore, “racialized” people are not — and cannot be — exclusively non-white people because they experience racial discrimination; whiteness and the privileges afforded to it are also racialized. Limiting “racialized” exclusively to the experiences of non-white communities ignores redressing the material disadvantages non-white communities experience due to their racialization.
Trudeau’s incorrect use of “racialized” is quite consistent across a variety of institutions. Whether it is media, members of elected office, governmental departments, or private/public/non-profit organizations, “racialized” is consistently utilized to refer to non-white people. This utilization is troubling because it is a conflation of race and racism which is a misunderstanding of both, hampering our ability to engage in the serious work of eliminating racism. It is through this conflation and subsequent denial of race and racism that Canada is able to portray itself as post-racial.
The misuse of “racialized” is particularly stark among institutions specifically charged with educating about and developing strategies around tackling race and racism. Such as the federal government’s current anti-racism strategy, which does not actually define “racialized” people or communities. It does define racialization as the “process through which groups come to be socially constructed as races, based on characteristics such as ethnicity, language, economics, religion, culture, politics.”
Based on this definition, groups that go through racialization would be racialized regardless of how privilege and disadvantage are ascribed. Nonetheless, the federal anti-racism strategy betrays their own definition of racialization, thus “racialized,” with its subsequent definition of systemic and institutional racism: “a position of relative disadvantage for racialized persons. These appear neutral on the surface but, nevertheless, have an exclusionary impact on racialized persons.”
This definition utilizes “racialized persons” as a synonym for non-white people and is clearly not including whiteness as part of this definition. However, “racialized” is supposed to include whiteness; it is a required component for the process of racialization. Logically, from the federal anti-racism definition, Europeans became white because of the “process through which groups come to be socially constructed as races.”
To not include whiteness ignores the process by which racialization confers and maintains privilege and advantage for white communities. This advantage simultaneously maintains disadvantage for communities that experience discrimination (read: non-white).
The Canadian Race Relations Foundation (CRRF) makes a similar error in its national study of race relations by proclaiming “to reflect the perspectives of racialized and non-racialized Canadians.” The CRRF goes further in misunderstanding race and racism by not only assuming “racialized” is interchangeable with non-white people, but also outlining the opposite of “racialized” as “non-racialized.”
From the CRRF’s use of “racialized,” it would follow that white communities are “non-racialized.” In studying race relations, it is peculiar to have a “non-racialized” group (white) counterposed to a “racialized” group (non-white). Methodologically, whiteness is reaffirmed as objective and natural thus marking non-whites as abnormal.
Looking back to Toronto, similar errors are made in understanding “racialized.” For example, the City of Toronto’s human rights office claims to define “racialized” but ends up defining “racialization.” They define “racialized” persons as those who experience discrimination utilizing the same faulty definition as the federal government and CRRF.
Similar to the CRRF, Toronto’s anti-Black racism strategy utilizes “non-racialized” as a group that does not experience discrimination so as to contrast with Black communities. The danger lies in the ways “non-racialized” de-historicizes whiteness by ignoring the process by which whiteness formed as a response to the existence of Black and non-white communities.
If the disadvantage that these communities encounter is due to their race, then it follows that the privilege conferred to whiteness is due to race. The racialization of whiteness as “superior” is inextricably linked to the racialization of non-whiteness as “inferior.”
At the provincial level, the Ontario Anti-Racism Directorate (ARD) and the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) provide a little more depth. Both actually provide a definition and rationale for “racialized” in addition to “racialization” but are similar to the federal government and the City of Toronto in its contradictory nature. The OHRC claims that “racialized” as a term:
“is widely preferred over descriptions such as ‘racial minority,’ ‘visible minority’ or ‘person of colour’ as it expresses race as a social construct rather than a description of people based on perceived characteristics.”
The basis for this claim by the OHRC is unclear, though, since there is no reference to any consultation from non-white groups expressing preference for “racialized” as a descriptor.
Furthermore, similar to “racialized,” the terms “racial minority,” “non-white” and “visible minority” refer to the mechanisms people are artificially grouped together to form a “race.” However, the problem with all these terms remains: they do not name whiteness as integral to racism which ignores how power operates in Canada. Even more, “racialized” goes a step further by excluding whiteness from the process of racialization altogether thus normalizing it. Ultimately, we undermine substantive strategies for eliminating the ways structural inequality operates in Canada.
The erasure of whiteness could be why “racialized” is used so rampantly at all levels of Canadian governance, media and an array of organizations. Perhaps this is why Trudeau and his team decided to use the term “racialized” in his apology to Black communities in Canada.
The misuse of “racialized” fits with Canada’s post-racial mythology to erase whiteness so as to create an invisible norm; whiteness becomes pre-racialized and non-racialized. Canada’s post-racial mythology, through the normalizing of whiteness, requires the U.S. to participate as a false dichotomy.
It has been tradition in Canada to identify its lack of racism by pointing to the U.S. as an example of real racism (as argued by Yasmeen Abu-Laban and Christina Gabriel in Selling Diversity: Immigration Multiculturalism, Employment Equity, and Globalization). This is actually an erasure of Black Canada by unproblematically treating Canada as a safe haven (see Rinaldo Walcott’s Black Like Who?).
This erasure is what typifies Canada’s post-racial narrative particularly in the twenty-first century. While post-racialism gathered quite a bit of momentum in the U.S. during the Obama era, it does not initiate Canadian post-racialism. Canadianness and post-racialism merge to re-inscribe white supremacy by making Canada synonymous with racial transcendence.
It would be more accurate to use “racially marginalized” when referring to non-white communities or all people that experience racism. However, the normalizing of whiteness through the conflation of all non-white groups under a pseudo-unity banner (“racialized,” “racially marginalized,” “racial minority,” “non-white,” “visible minority,” etc.) is endemic to how racism operates in Canada.
Race and racism are conflated and generalized so that they can be ignored, which is to ignore the ways whiteness is tied to the development of Canada. This is to say, whiteness becomes a non-race that is naturalized and unquestioned so as to legitimate the authority of Canada.
Consequently, conflating race and racism marks non-white communities, including Indigenous peoples, as abnormal and thus overtly non-Canadian and always at risk of removal. Therefore, using “racialized” as a placeholder for non-white normalizes whiteness through which non-white communities will be measured at their own peril.
Yafet Tewelde is a community activist and PhD candidate at York University specializing in Black studies, critical race theory, multiculturalism and policing.