The Toronto mayor now admits that he was wrong.
An audio recording from 2012 resurfaced on Wednesday in which Mayor John Tory defended the practice of blackface, arguing that it “didn’t seem to fit into the definition of racism.”
“I don’t get why it’s an issue at all,” he says in the video, posted early Wednesday morning by the Twitter user @JohnToryWatch. The comments were made during a call-in segment of Live Drive, an afternoon radio show on Newstalk 1010 that Mayor Tory hosted from 2009 until 2014. Tory and his guests, Matt Gurney, a regular guest on Live Drive, and Megan Harris, a columnist for the Toronto Sun, were discussing Tyler Bozak, who in 2012 tweeted a picture of himself in blackface as part of a Michael Jackson costume.
While the original image was removed from his Twitter profile, Bozak defended his use of blackface, saying, “That’s a tribute to one of my fave artists. For anyone saying its racist is crazy!”
Mayor Tory apparently agreed with Bozak and offered a passionate defence. A number of times during the clip, Tory laughs at the irony that Jackson was trying “to be more white.” Jackson’s skin pigmentation was in part due to vitiligo, a disease that affects the colour of one’s skin.
“We are making too much of these things,” says Tory, adding, “especially when we invoke the use of the word racism.”
Neither Gurney nor Harris challenged Tory on his defence of blackface.
“Imitation is the biggest form of flattery,” says Harris at one point.
“I don’t think this is racist. I think it’s stupid,” Gurney said. “We
just need to accept the fact that even on Halloween, white people
shouldn’t do blackface.”
The use of blackface has been widely condemned as racist, given its history of being used in offensive caricatures of Black individuals. Following its height of popularity in late-19th century minstrel shows, the use of blackface has largely fallen out of practice since the 1930s.
Tory’s relationship with the city’s Black community has been notably rocky, especially in the context of his relationship with the Black Lives Matter movement in Toronto. He was heavily criticized in 2015 for only shifting his position on police carding after prominent—and mostly white—Torontonians spoke out about it. This is also not the first time he has drawn criticism for his lack of awareness of racial issues: in the 2014 mayoral campaign, Tory was asked if he believed that white privilege existed. “White privilege? No, I don’t know that it does,” he responded.
Mayor Tory responded to the video on Wednesday, saying, “blackface under any circumstance is racist and never okay…At the time, I was leading a conversation on the topic as a radio host and did not think such an action was racist if the individual didn’t intend to be derogatory. I was corrected at the time by a caller who phoned into the radio show that day, and have since learned that my thinking on the subject was wrong.”
CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to clarify that Matt Gurney did not challenge Tory in his defence of blackface. Torontoist originally said he was in agreement with Tory’s position. Torontoist regrets that his comments were not more clear.