Why Trudeau got away with blacking up

Being woke can get you out of almost any bind.

Julie Burchill


Some things you think you’ve seen the back of, and then they swing back around like some abominable boomerang. Diphtheria and anti-Semitism come to mind – and blackface.

Blacking up in the cause of entertainment became popular in the 19th century as minstrel shows travelled across America, and was later incorporated into vaudeville and then into the new mediums of radio, film and television. The greatest beneficiary was Al Jolson. In the 1920s, he was the best-paid and best-known singer in America, dubbed the ‘world’s greatest entertainer’. Performing a startlingly theatrical version of jazz and blues before rock’n’roll was just a dollar sign in Colonel Tom Parker’s eye, he was – despite the dubious hue of his greasepaint – often credited with fighting against racial discrimination on Broadway. As the author Michael Rogin points out, Harlem audiences cried during his hit film The Jazz Singer; the neighbourhood newspaper pronounced it ‘one of the greatest pictures ever produced… every coloured performer is proud of him’.

This was unlike the abomination that was Amos ‘n’ Andy. The radio show, created and voiced by two white actors, ran from 1928 to 1960, a kind of blackface on the radio. They worked their voices overtime to amp up the condescending plantation stereotypes of simple, idle black men, and were quite rightly condemned by the black church as ‘crude, repetitious, and moronic’. However, to people who didn’t actually know any black people, they must have been convincing enough, because when Amos ‘n’ Andy graduated to the cinema in 1930, audiences were surprised to see white men in blackface rather than the African-Americans they had expected. By the time it was televised in 1951, black actors were cast in the leading roles, but were instructed to imitate the voices of the white originals, leading to a strange situation whereby black people mimicked white people mimicking black people. The show only lasted two years, thanks to the admirable economic and political clout of organisations such as the NAACP.

But here in Britain – where we consider ourselves so much more civilised than the Yanks – it was a different story. The BBC – belatedly ultra-woke after a shameful history of protecting paedophiles and treating female employees as second-class citizens – ran The Black and White Minstrel Show from 1958 for a whopping 20 years. Many stars appeared on it, including a young Lenny Henry in 1975; he has since claimed that he was ‘contractually obliged’ to appear and that doing so made him profoundly depressed.

This being so, I wonder how Henry feels when he sees woke bros being unveiled as secret blackface fans well into the 21st century? Justin Trudeau seems as compulsively drawn to blacking up as his mother was to hanging around pop groups; after the third example of him doing so was revealed this year, he admitted that he had actually lost count of the number of times he’d done it. Nevertheless, he was defended by minority spokesmen and liberal commentators. This contrasts strikingly with the fate of Atlantic Records UK president Ben Cook, who was forced to resign earlier this month after old photographs of him in blackface emerged. As Cook is responsible for launching the career of Ed Sheeran, some might say he had it coming. But it’s weird how Trudeau, an ostentatiously woke politician, has survived and thrived, while Cook has limped away in disgrace. You’d think the former had betrayed both his beliefs and his followers far more.

At this point I’d like to offer a mea culpa myself. Once, as a 10-year-old, I too wore blackface. Indeed, I went ‘full golly’ (blue satin jacket, red satin trousers, black Leichner greasepaint and an afro wig, which made my small head twice its normal size). I had an aunt who worked at the Robertson’s jam factory – the company loaned costumes to anyone who fancied dressing up as their mascot. But the point is, even way back in 1970, I knew it was wrong. Walking to the fancy-dress competition I was jeered at. At the contest I was shunned. Yes, they gave me second prize because I’d made such an effort. But my name was mud at mixed juniors for longer than I care to remember.

So how come Trudeau got away with it? It’s part of a broader dodge – what the commentator Daniel Norris calls the Wokescreen. From behind this magical canopy, cliques can rob women of their hard-won private spaces (transgender activists) and enjoy the brutish thrill of racism (Corbynite anti-Semites) and because they’ve ticked the box which says Brotherhood Of Man it doesn’t make them bad people! Those people over there are the bad ones – like Jacob Rees-Mogg’s 12-year-old son.

It’s a mystery. But an even bigger one is why blackface is quite rightly unacceptable while drag gets bigger by the day. You’d have to be living in an Amish community not to have heard of RuPaul’s Drag Race, while Channel 5’s Drag Kids follows a process which we squares call ‘grooming’. Yet no one turns a hair. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if the Black and White Minstrels are insulting and reactionary, why aren’t drag queens? If someone can explain to me why race-based parody is bad and sex-based parody ‘a bit of fun’, I’d love to know. Woke me up and tell me why!

Julie Burchill is a journalist and author based in Brighton.

Julie is speaking in the session ‘Gross-out feminism: is the political too personal’ at the Battle of Ideas festival in London on 2 November. Get tickets here.

Picture by: Getty

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.


Stef Steer

4th November 2019 at 6:54 am

You totally have a point. but its oppression top trumps init. Transsexuals trump women.

I was brought up to believe you have to take a joke to get on in life, turns out that was a complete lie and to get on in life you have to be offended.

Actually its worse than that in the equality act 2010 there are protected groups and that effectively tells you about who you can take the mickey out of and who you can’t and even worse if you are a man and white in 2019 you are at best called priveleged and at worst called a white supremicist. State sanctioned discrimination.

The final kicker is I think the reason this is actually happening is that the globalist elite see emerging markets in what was the third world as high growth areas for the foreseeable and the virtue signalling is all about ingratiating themselves with those markets and if it comes at the cost of poor white men then so be it.

The only way all this double standard ends is if the globalist woke elite are kicked out of power but given they are cross party around the world (even trump isn’t trying to deal with this) its difficult to see that happening, maybe in 10 years when millenials are 40+ and their adherence to wokeness has bought them nothing but a lower standard of living.

Gamaliel Mierzko

1st November 2019 at 1:21 am

Just a minor quibble. Yes, from everything I’ve read, I believe the Amos and Andy radio show was a racist abomination, and I assumed the TV was the same. But then, several years ago, I had a chance to view some episodes, and they were hilarious. The show was funnier than most of the TV comedies that were airing at the same time.

I can understand why the NAACP would be upset by A&A — while multiple sitcoms showed whites acting like greedy, scheming dimwits, this was the only TV show with a black cast, so the activists felt it reflected poorly on the entire race. Since then, however, many more shows have portrayed blacks in a worse light than A&A (i.e., Good Times) without nearly the laughs. So please don’t lump the Amos and Andy TV show with efforts to ridicule black people. It would be nice if a cable rerun station offered it so more viewers could witness comic genius.

H McLean

29th October 2019 at 11:37 pm

Trudeau gets away with it because the left’s principles only activate when it’s their political enemies doing something wrong. They believe some crimes should be punished depending on who is doing them. If the perpetrator is part of a protected class then the excuses and sympathy automatically negate any principles.

Murder? It’s bad and should be universally punished, unless, of course, it’s a women who has killed her husband, and then she not only enjoys the privilege of blaming the unfortunate sod for his own death, the political left will en masse protest that she is but an innocent victim with no agency or power to be held personally responsible for her actions.

Amin Readh

29th October 2019 at 10:58 pm

When Trudeau “won” there was article here saying he wasn’t getting away with it…

Mister Joshua

29th October 2019 at 10:46 pm

He got away with it because he’s a leftist. Period. Obama even came to Canada to campaign for Trudeau. Wonder if anyone will cry “election interference”?

Same reason no one cares about the 10s of millions exterminated by Lenin, Stalin, and Mao. Same reason Hollywood doesn’t make movies about Soviet concentration camps. Same reason the people who were offended by Trump’s locker room “pu$$y” remark don’t care about Bill Clinton’s actual deeds.

This isn’t a mystery, people.

Michael Lynch

29th October 2019 at 8:06 pm

It’s symptomatic of our age I’m afraid. We live in a world where what you say or write can condemn you and not what you actually do. When civilization reaches this level of stupidity you know it’s become decadent and is in decline.

Mister Joshua

29th October 2019 at 10:40 pm

Yes, irredeemably in decline.

jessica christon

29th October 2019 at 8:00 pm

All it tells us is what we knew all along: they don’t have a problem with racism per se, it’s about *who* is being racist, and this applies to all of their ‘principles’. Didn’t Brendan Cox get me too’d in a charity scandal? That was all rushed off stage left rather more quickly than it would have been if it were someone with right-leaning views. And so on, really.

Christopher Tyson

29th October 2019 at 7:11 pm

edited version

George Orwell

29th October 2019 at 6:06 pm

Back in the 1950s there were stereotypes for everything, they were accepted as clearly unrepresentative stereotypes and were a source of humour whomever they were directed at. White male heterosexuals were as much the subject as anyone else.
‘Normal’ people had a sense of individual self worth and went along with the jokes without rancour. There was always a way of countering one stereotype with another.
Then it all changed when minorities realised they could get money and/or power by being ‘offended’ and in order to divide and conquer us various types of political authoritarians have encouraged the process until we reached the current level of stupidity.
It is part of a process of setting the inhabitants of relatively civilised and united societies and nations against one another so that the disreputable can gain power.

Amin Readh

29th October 2019 at 10:57 pm

“Then it all changed when minorities realised they could get money and/or power by being ‘offended’”

In other words how dare one not let Whites carry on as usual!

Christopher Tyson

29th October 2019 at 5:48 pm

I too have a confession, back in the 80s I used to read my parents’ Mail on Sunday, suddenly Julie Burchill arrived and I thought ‘wow she’s really good’. I mentioned Burchill to a left wing friend of mine who was involved with a left wing group and forerunner to spiked, and I got the sense that I was perhaps not quite on the right road. But here’s Julie Burchill on spiked, that’s how things are now. Oh yeah I also used to sing in a minstrel show, some of us were white some black (me, my brother and others), my mum tells it better, she said with the make she didn’t know who was who, who was black or white or whatever, and her abiding memory is of washing the black make up off of the white shirts. My mum used to watch the black and white minstrel show too. I remember with my siblings wondering why the men had on black make-up but the women didn’t, but we never thought that it had anything to do with us, we didn’t associate golliwogs and minstrels with black people or ourselves. In the West Indies I don’t think there was the phenomenon of white people parodying or mocking black people, maybe because the whites were outnumbered, and gratuitous insult could lead to rebellion and revolt, which would be bad for business, economic exploitations was what mattered. Mockery and parody went the other way in the West Indies, including the vexed question of blacks who were ‘acting white’ or wanting to be white. Some of this continues to the current day, the leading lights of woke are often those who have become successful, sportsperson and assorted celebrities, who fear losing touch with where they came from, ‘woke’ often overcompensates and exaggerates, as they try to keep hold of their blackness. Henry and others see their past through woke tinted glasses. In US there’s a sense that there was a fear of the black population, they were numerous, but still a minority, so the ideology would have been directed at keeping them in their place. What did we sing? A black kid, in black make-up singing the hits of the 40s, Gracie Fields, Max Bygraves, Vera Lynn, people like that. The music is what you keep. On the drag thing I commented recently about Lou Reeds ‘Walk on the wild side’ being censored, the ‘coloured girls’ have been removed from a particular version, I didn’t even think about the irony the ‘wildness’ is perfectly fine now.

Andrew Leonard

29th October 2019 at 1:00 pm

Trudeau got away with it for the same reason that any major party politician gets away with almost anything – because no matter the misdemeanor (or indeed, the achievement), around half the electorate will remain in support, and the other half will remain critical. This is not the same as in the private sphere (business or personal), where splits in support are dynamic and can occur anywhere (not just at the 50% margin), and as a consequence, private individuals and organisations compete for reputation. This is why someone like Ben Cook is treated differently (and no, I don’t think it’s fair).

Massive voter loyalty means that in the political arena, the reputational system that is so critical and works so well in the private arena, barely works at all.

This issue ultimately leads to low trust in politicians. We really need some alternative to the reputation system, just for politics.

Baked Beans

29th October 2019 at 10:14 am

” I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if the Black and White Minstrels are insulting and reactionary, why aren’t drag queens?”
In your heart I’m sure you know!
Surely it’s the same technique as used by the confidence trickster: you just want to believe it’s true!
And so your acceptance mechanism kicks in, saving you the need to think for yourself, something all people do all the time and most people do some of the time.

Jim Lawrie

29th October 2019 at 9:39 am

At what point do we draw the line in mocking the mannerisms and speech of others and who draws that line? You Ms Burchill? To encompass having a go at Justin Trudeau’s mother for attending a pop concert aged 28 and a mother of three?
Did you laugh at Al Murray’s impersonation of Scotsmen? Should you be flogged on Brighton beach? Would you like that?

No one thinks drag queens are either representing women, or oppressing women. They are men. We all know that. Making a living out of making a fool of themselves giving their interpretation of what it is like to be a woman and being funny in the process – otherwise it would have just fizzled out. No one thinks women are like that. It’s called comedy. Les Dawson id it. It is part of Cinderella.
Women are free to entertain and sell tickets dressed as men. If they can figure out a way of doing it. But they have not and can not. I think sour grapes is the expression. Blacks can white up and have a go. A good part of Black comedy is poking fun at honkeys.
If MGTOW reaches tennis, then a separate Wimbledon for Women will tell us their real worth, as indicated by the price of tickets on the black market. Maybe a third tournament called Tennis for Trannies, with two in attendance.

Trudeau got away with blacking up because the creation of such retrospective crimes was only ever intended to be used as charges against those deemed deplorable. Therefore Trudeau was bound to be forgiven. Accoladed, exalted and elevated for his sincere culpa mea. A real bleeding heart liberal. It helped him. And the women loved him even more for it. Take it up with them. Not us.

Ven Oods

29th October 2019 at 11:25 am

“No one thinks drag queens are either representing women, or oppressing women.”
Come to that, did the Minstrel Show claim to represent black people, or oppress them? It looks terrible now, given the general change in attitude toward such things, but, at the time?
I remember having a pretty complete collection of Robinson’s golly badges when a child. It never occurred to me that they represented black people, but then, I grew up in an area where there were no non-Caucasians, so perhaps that’s why.

Jim Lawrie

29th October 2019 at 4:14 pm

It’s ridiculous that we are both trying to defend or define what is entertainment. A sphere of human activity that is anything but reality and which makes clear that it is definitely not.

As you say, that show is of its day. If it can find a market, let it run.

Amin Readh

29th October 2019 at 10:54 pm

You are outright a White Racist.

Jim Lawrie

1st November 2019 at 9:00 pm

Thanks Amin. I detest being called a borderline racist.

But either way, what is racist in my comment? Was it the mention of honkeys?

H McLean

29th October 2019 at 11:51 pm

“…No one thinks drag queens are either representing women, or oppressing women. They are men….”

It’s fair to say this truism was commonly accepted until but a few years ago but it has been flipped on its head thanks to woke identitarian politics. These days, Jim, – and I’m not joking – you could be banned from social media for stating the perfectly valid precept that men are indeed men.

Earlier this year a feminist activist was permanently banned from Twitter for posting ‘Women are not men”. Even worse, saying such a thing could well result in the police turning up on your doorstep to have a word about your wrongthink. I’m unsure of the figures but the number of hate speech arrests in the UK has skyrocketed in recent years, and a majority of those seem to be for the crime of hurting someone’s feelings, or stating the bleedin obvious.

Louise Culmer

30th October 2019 at 6:51 am

Male impersonators were hugely popular in the Victorian and Edwardian music hall. Female stars such as Vesta Tilley (Jolly Good Luck to the Girl Who Loves a Soldier) Hetty King (All the Nice Girls Love A Sailor) and Ella Shields (Burlington Bertie from Bow) swaggered around the stage in masculine garb to great acclaim. Perhaps there could be a revival.

Jim Lawrie

1st November 2019 at 8:58 pm

I used to go to Stonewalls and The Queen’s Arms in Lewisham if they had a good drag act on.

Jim Lawrie

1st November 2019 at 9:03 pm

No doubt it would be mobbed outside by screaming harpies showing us another version of how not to be a woman.

Neil McCaughan

29th October 2019 at 9:37 am

Wearing someone else’s racial identity for personal advantage can be the basis of a successful career. Look at Rachel Dolezal and Elizabeth Warren.

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