LONDON, ONTARIO - My goodness but the times are tetchy. It has been appalling to watch the pile-on by media and assorted pedantic ‘experts’ and ‘woke’ activists which engulfed a young London Police officer for the combination thought crime and costume faux pas of applying black skin tone to her face and body and donning an impressively elaborate outfit of traditional African attire complete with neck coils for a Hallowe’en costume more than 11 years ago and more than ten years before she joined the London force.
An Instagram photo from the long-ago party innocently posted to social media on December 13th by the sister of Constable Katrina Aarts, was then less innocently forwarded to our never-less-than circumspect mayor, Matt Brown. Brown, who also sits on the Police Services Board and knows a thing or two about disappointing people, then forwarded the photos to London’s Deputy Police Chief, saying “This is frustrating, concerning and disappointing. There is no place for racism in London.”
And so when an in-house investigation into Constable Aarts’ ‘bad think’ was announced by the London Police, with a directive to determine the context and intent of her donning such ‘problematic’ attire (HINT: It was Hallowe’en; she was trying to look like somebody other than herself), the media did what they could to ensure a thorough lambasting for the poor woman by soliciting comments from assorted experts and specialists in such rigorously well-defined fields as ‘hate crimes’ and ‘racism’. Would it have killed them to balance things out a little by putting one call through to somebody who works in costume design or specializes in hair or makeup and ask: “So, as an amateur, how do you think she did?”
Included in The London Free Press’ coverage of this latest scandal was their usual litany of shame which gets trotted out whenever some Londoner says ‘boo’ to anyone sporting a complexion darker than an Arrowroot biscuit. Seven years ago somebody threw a banana on the ice at a hockey game as a black player skated on. Then two years ago two black actors received racial slurs while walking around downtown. And just last year somebody etched the N word in the snow on a black family’s car; and (extending their coverage to a St. Thomas parking lot) then there was that bat-wielding lout off his meds who ranted about ISIS terrorists to a Columbian immigrant family. Unpleasant and thoroughly ignorant behaviour? Absolutely. An indictment of London as a veritable hotbed of unchecked racism? I think not.
Mojdeh Cox, an Ottawa-based anti-racism and human rights activist not shy about throwing around a few race-based generalizations of her own (but they’re about whites, so that’s okay), told the Free Press: “If people are saying they don’t know why blackface is a problem, they are either living under a rock or with white privilege. White supremacy is not just the KKK. It is your race being so dominant, you don’t have to worry about anyone mimicking you for Hallowe’en . . . playing up your race as if you are a caricature.”
There are three sure signs to me that Katrina Aarts wasn’t acting out of hatefulness or bigotry in this affair. First off, there is Aarts’ initial reaction when her sister posted the pictures to Facebook for all the world to see – pictures of Aarts in the 11 year-old costume and a more recent picture of her in her police uniform. Those pictures were posted as a compliment and Constable Aarts received them as such, thanking her sister for the kind gesture. She didn’t flinch or freak out and demand her sister take the posting down before somebody else saw it and fingered her for the slathering racist she was. She felt – and I happen to think she was right – that there was nothing to be ashamed of here.
Then there was the incredible elaboration and care that went into developing the costume. ‘Blackface’ is the word that the media and her critics threw around because it seems to carry the most negative connotations for knee-jerking social justice warriors. But she painted her entire body and put in hours of work on getting the details of her costume and hair just right. I don’t see a putdown of anybody in those pictures but rather a very detailed and carefully embellished emulation – even a tribute - to the distinctive fashion and custom of another culture.
But it’s not her culture, outraged snowflakes will say. She doesn’t have the right to appropriate the costume of a woman of colour. Well, actually, she does. It may offend the canons of taste and decorum at this hypersensitive moment in our cultural history but it’s not against the law on any day of the year and most particularly not – and this is her real ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card – on Hallowe’en.
At the conclusion of the investigation, Aarts was cleared of any charges of professional misconduct - which only makes sense considering the timing of the offending original incident. She agreed to submit to a course of cultural sensitivity and racial awareness training and her formal apology was read out at a news conference by London Police Chief, John Pare. (Gosh, I wonder how much longer he’ll get away with a racially insensitive job title like that?) In her statement Aarts also said that she hoped to become an ambassador to share what she has learned through this process with her fellow officers.
It’s hard to imagine a more abject apology than the one Aarts gave: “At the time, I did not recognize the racial implications when choosing this costume. However, sitting here today, I am now forever remorseful for this decision.”
But it wasn’t good enough for Rubin Friedman of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation who told the Free Press, “It’s not adequate. There’s got to be substance behind the things that you do. There’s got to be meaning behind the words.”
I guess she could pump it up to “forever and a day.” Or how about “until the 12th of Never?” Would either of those have been an ‘adequate’ period of time to spend in the Slough of Despond?
Responding to Aarts’ pledge that she would try to become “an ambassador of change within the London Police Service”, our good friend Mojdeh Cox jumped in with, “There’s more to this than just saying sorry. It really is jumping a little too quickly in a direction she doesn’t deserve. It has to be earned. That ambassadorship is earned through practice.”
A police officer’s salary is pretty decent nowadays which is probably just as well if you’re going to have to spend all the days of your career trying to appease insatiable human toothaches like Friedman and Cox. Now there’s an idea for a Hallowe’en costume.
Herman Goodden is a writer, journalist and playwright based in London, Ontario. His latest books are Speakable Acts, a collection of his six plays, and Three Artists which examines the lives and work of William Kurelek, Jack Chambers and Greg Curnoe.