Desmond Cole wants to dispel Canada’s “magical thinking” on race

The activist/journalist's debut book The Skin We're In chronicles 12 months in the struggle for Black liberation


FUTURES: DESMOND COLE on Wednesday (February 5) at the Art Gallery of Ontario (317 Dundas West). 7 pm. Free. Pre-register for advance tickets. ago.ca.


Since the 2015 publication of his seminal Toronto Life article, The Skin I’m In, Desmond Cole has wholeheartedly and publicly committed himself to the project of both challenging and documenting the many ways in which white supremacy manifests itself in the lives of Black people.

Cole’s first book, The Skin We’re In (Doubleday Canada, 256 pages, $29.95), chronicles 12 months in the struggle for Black liberation ranging from the emergence of Black Lives Matter-TO (BLM-TO) protests, responses to the police killing of Abdirahman Abdi, critiques of the Canada 150 celebrations, the fight to remove police officers from high schools, the coalition to stop the deportation of Abdoul Abdi and the trial of the Theriault bothers charged with brutally attacking Dafonte Miller, among others. He meticulously elucidates and probes stories of everyday resistance while opening up about his own development and growth as a journalist and activist.

I sat down with Cole in his publisher’s office to discuss his political awakening, the importance of writing honestly and finding moments of joy in the struggle.

How did the year 2017 change you personally?

Twenty years ago when I was in university, I remember people who would talk about going to Toronto to protest this or that issue. At that point in my life, I used to say, “What’s the point?” I was very liberal about notions of race and social progress, and I wanted to believe in our political system, that we live in a post-racial society. I wanted to drink that Kool-Aid. By 2017, there was a certain hardening of my understanding of the country we live within. Even when I wrote the Toronto Life article about my experiences with carding, which led to the book, I was still hoping we could convince the state to change how it treated Black people. But I soon realized the jig is up. There is no reasoning with power-holders around white supremacy, there’s no negotiating your liberation and freedom. I realized that if you want those things, you have to demand them and take them. So you could say that year was a personal transformation for me.

Tell me more about that shift. What other notions did you have to abandon?

We are encouraged to be naive about our political system in Canada, to think that it works in everyone’s interest, to think that it doesn’t care what race you are or your level of perceived ability, or your gender – that kind of magical thinking is very mainstream in Canada. And so as I continue my own awakening, I’m hoping others will do the same as they read this book. I’m hoping people – who, like me, made the mistake of asking the same state that creates all of this misery to bring about its own change – I’m hoping this book will help readers to see why that’s not going to happen. If we want Black liberation, and if we stand in solidarity with Indigenous peoples, there’s a lot of work we have to do. My journey of trying to understand continues.

You’ve been dedicated to documenting critical moments in Black life in this city from BLM-TO to fighting the police practice of carding. How do you view your role?

The actions that I describe in this book are for the most part describing Black people putting themselves on the front lines in our struggle. But I don’t want to mislead anybody by suggesting that participating in demonstrations or protesting at a police board meeting is the definition of fighting for Black liberation.

However, I do ask: Are you willing to risk your reputation or your job? Will you speak out or do you have to remain quiet out of a sense of self-preservation? Everybody has a different role they can play. It’s important to not try to do all things just because you have a platform in a certain area. I’m not a member of the BLM-TO organizing team. I didn’t do what they did. I just tried to document those things. That’s my service. I’m trying to be a microphone for people who are engaged in these issues. And that’s what I’ve tried to do in this book.

It seems like you made a deliberate attempt to keep unnecessary narration out of the book. It’s pretty much a faithful account. Did you want to stay away from metaphorical sweeps or literary digressions?

I was fortunate to work with Martha Kanya-Forstner, my editor, who really encouraged me to show and not tell. I feel these events so immediately and viscerally in my life that sometimes there is a desire to characterize. But I’m also very conscious of the fact that Black writers are often pushed away from doing our own serious analysis. So I wanted to have my say in the book, too. I think I was able to do both.

You write that “white supremacy is always keeping score.” How so?

It starts with the assumption of Blackness as deviant, which makes the violence that white supremacy enacts seem normal. There’s always an expectation of failure, deviance and violence when Black people are involved, so keeping score also means surveillance. Why does the Toronto Police Service have a database of millions of non-criminal interactions with Black people? Keeping score is the inability to live free. It’s the way in which Black children are being suspended and expelled from school. These aren’t individual situations. This is systemic anti-Black racism.

You write about the emergence of the national advocacy group Federation of Black Canadians (FBC). How did the experience of publicly criticizing their relationship to the federal government shape your thinking about the often heated debates between Black reformers and radical activists?

I don’t think we as Black people all want the same outcomes, so I think it’s really important that we as Black people disagree. How are we going to improve our situation if we don’t disagree? The FBC appeared out of nowhere claiming they were going to be advocating for all Black Canadians. But we know what really happened. That [FBC] was about the federal government saying they needed to change the channel, that they wanted to sit down – behind closed doors – with Black people who wouldn’t embarrass or challenge them. We have no reason to trust Black people who somehow gain access to government and then start negotiating on our behalf. It’s really an exercise in controlling the messaging, in pushing out more radical groups like BLM-TO. I had an interest – like all Black people do – in knowing what a so-called advocacy group was doing in my name.

A chapter in the book stands out for its focus on finding joy during struggle. What did you enjoy about writing this book?

I mostly enjoyed sitting alone at my window, where I would just think. This book did not come easily or quickly for me, so I just enjoyed having time to think and collect myself. This book allowed me to connect with a lot of people I care about. And it gave me a way to celebrate people who are in the book, honouring their struggle and what they’ve had to go through. The opportunity to put love on our community and tell our stories meant more to me than anything. As hard as the struggle can be, there have been beautiful moments that validate what we’re doing.

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