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LOOKING ASKANCE - Joseph Gonzales (The Freeman) - September 22, 2019 - 12:00am

Justin Trudeau's dashing good looks and my own fanhood aside, I find this new issue of him wearing blackface (and brownface) ridiculous.

The Canadian leader has just been widely excoriated for putting on dark make-up and an Aladdin costume - because the occasion called for it.  He also admitted to wearing black face for a school play. Not only was the Prime Minister excoriated - Trudeau even went ahead and apologized, his posture abject, his demeanor sober.

Apologize?  What for?

I couldn't for the life of me understand why Trudeau needed to apologize.  Yes, on some occasions putting on black face and an afro wig might be offensive, a call to ridicule, a means to demean certain segments of the population.  No argument there.  It is indeed a way to belittle blacks (or brown-skinned people); it is utilized as a weapon.  So, for those occasions, certainly, that practice must be condemned, and the offenders must be castigated.

But is this one such occasion? (Or in his case, at least three occasions?)

I think it all boils down to intent. If a person puts on a costume and the motive behind it is to proclaim his superiority and announce the inferiority of the race he is parodying, then yes, that should be discouraged.  "Lock 'em up," as the intolerant chant.

But if the intent is to celebrate a festival or honor a cultural tradition, or even to play a theatrical role, then would be absolutely nothing wrong with that.  It would be what it is - putting on a costume.  Nothing more.

To go with this politically correct flow would mean - what exactly?  We outlaw United Nations day in schools, and little kids cannot come to school dressed in grass skirts or saris?  Would it mean that henceforth, all movies with an Indian character cannot cast a Caucasian - or a black guy, or a Filipino, or a Chinese actor, regardless of how delectable they are? (I mean, regardless of how talented they are)?

This is almost the same controversy as an Asian role being given to a white actress, but in reverse.  (Remember that one?  Where Scarlett Johansson was given the role in Ghost in the Shell, and accusations of white washing started flying around).  Then we had "cultural appropriation" bandied about, where Arianna Grande was accused of darkening her skin to look black and Bruno Mars was attacked for riffing off on African-American beats.

But to me, the more that critics yap about appropriation and propriety, the more they seem concerned about racial purity rather than anything else. The emphasis is to preserve certain roles or certain sounds or images for certain categories of people.  That seems a lot like exclusion to me.

If we are serious about inclusivity, meaning allowing all people to participate, then we should encourage experimentation in other people's cultures and beliefs, and yes, even costumes. I don't take offense when I see expatriate employees come to work in barong tagalogs. I find it respectful.  In fact, I think they honor my country with their attempt to blend in the office. (I still insist on wearing my suits, of course, which shouts to the world a very Western corporate sensibility, even if the Westerners at work probably find it amusing to see me avoid the sun and the open air so that I don't sweat).

Don't you notice, when your friends go to Tokyo, everyone gets excited about donning a geisha outfit?  And I've seen countless social media posts of people traveling to Seoul and posing in the same traditional flowing robes that everyone else wore.  I have my own collection of cheongsams and ao-dais, for those once-a-decade occasions that call for it.

At last year's Jakarta Fashion Week, i watched a teen model contest where more than half the contestants were of mixed race. Their white fathers (mostly) wore batik shirts while their mixed-offspring strutted around the catwalk - which brings me to the question:  what would the purists prescribe as appropriate outfits for the mixed race?  Do they have to choose a side? An ethnic identity for life?  Or do they get a free pass, and only they can play both Asian and white roles in movies, and wear both kinds of outfits during Halloween, and appropriate both cultures for their music when composing?

Surely not.  We are right smack in the midst of a multi-cultural world, and the lines dividing us are blurring and have blurred. We have to not just realize this, but appreciate it, because there's so much that we can absorb from those around us.  With the world becoming smaller, it will certainly belong to those that can transcend borders, and take the opportunities where they see them.  To the quick and the bold and the smart, regardless of race, belongs the future.  And meanwhile, those trying to place artificial barriers will find themselves left behind.

Going back to Justin. No need to apologize, mister Prime Minister, if your intent was not to hurt or demean. Otherwise, you set the wrong example, and you send the wrong message to the world.  (As for me, I think I'll wear a K-pop inspired outfit today.)

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