In response to the dismay caused by recent disclosures of past events where he wore dark makeup, Justin Trudeau has said:
“Darkening your face, regardless of the context or the circumstances, is… unacceptable because of the racist history of blackface,” he said. “I should have understood that then and I never should have done it.”
But is this really true? Actually, I think not for it really does depend on the “context or circumstances”.
Some of the exceptions are extremely rare but it is wrong to deny that they exist. For example there may be medical treatments which darken skin as a side effect, and deliberate darkening for its own sake is often used by commandos and the like in order to evade detection at night or when moving in a dark environment.
The context of a non-comedic amateur dramatic performance should also, in my opinion, be excluded as it may be useful in such a context for both darkening and lightening makeup to be used to reinforce role reversal activities.
In professional performances though, I think there is an obligation to find appropriately pigmented actors if one wants to represent skin colour accurately because it is harder to lighten than to darken and so allowing colour adjustment gives an employment advantage to the lighter-skinned. But in that context the reason for the “ban” is to increase economic opportunity rather than because to permit the colouring would be in any sense racist.
It’s really only in the context of comic or malicious performances that skin darkening can be taken as strongly suggestive of racism, but any adult or adolescent halloween-type costume is sufficiently likely to have humorous or frightening intent that any reasonable adult should be aware that even if the intent is not there the possibility of it being perceived and hurtful is sufficient reason not to do it.
Unfortunately this last is the context that applies to Mr Trudeau and so I think he is right to apologize – and also to acknowledge at least to himself that there may have been an element of racist mockery in his behaviour. But to declare that his offense was to violate an arbitrary absolute ban actually diminishes rather than strengthens his apology.