Part of the Diversity and Inclusion Blog Post Series

Our neighbors to the north are usually examples of civility and multicultural sensitivity, so the news stories about Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s use of brownface on at least two occasions was surprising, if not shocking. Chatting with my Canadian friends and family, the usual question was “who’s his public relations person and how the heck don’t they know how to get ahead of a story?” This doesn’t mean batting-down the story.  It means: “why didn’t he use his behavior as an opportunity to lead a frank discussion on cultural sensitivity and inclusion?!”

“Gotcha” moments rarely encourage open discussions, because the conversation starts only when the insensitivity is discovered.  If at all possible, “gotcha” incidents need to be avoided.  This doesn’t mean a troll through one’s past to find each and every incident of insensitivity and exclusion, but it does mean owning-up to the obvious ones when s/he is in a position of power and influence. Trudeau certainly was (or should have been) vetted for past acts of insensitivity or exclusion and when those brownface photos were acknowledged, he should have crafted a sincere, meaningful plan of action.  By using his behavior as an example of exclusion and racial and ethnic insensitivity, Trudeau would have given Canadians a leader ready and willing to lead a national discussion on diversity and inclusion.

Rather than having weeks of meaningful conversation on diversity and inclusion, Canada will now have weeks of mea culpas.  The former moves everyone forward; the latter provides little of that benefit.

What if, instead of the weeks of mea culpas, we had seen Trudeau start a national conversation along the theme of truth and conciliation.  (Note, the deliberate use of “conciliation” rather than “reconciliation.”  Reconciliation assumes a previous healthy relationship that fell apart; conciliation is the effort to create one.)   Picture the inclusion-focused benefit of Trudeau holding up those photos and saying: “This is what I did, and it makes me cringe to think that at the time I thought that this was okay.  I’ve dropped the ball but I am picking it back up, because I am repentant and can do better. Join me.”

Now, picture yourself doing that in your law offices, social environments and professional organizations. Frank and civil conversations about meaningful diversity and inclusion efforts need to begin, or be expanded, and the conversation shouldn’t always be initiated by the marginalized group or only at a “gotcha” moment. The conversation about these important aspects of our lives needs to be ongoing, and the issues need to be prioritized and proactive. No “gotcha” about it.