Desmond Cole became known to the public after becoming known to police. The Alberta-born son of immigrants from Sierra Leone rose to prominence in 2015 after publishing an award-winning essay in Toronto Life magazine about the dozens of times he’d been stopped and questioned by police. In the years since, he’s become one of the country’s most prominent Black activists.
Fed up with hearing the refrain that life for Black and other racialized people in Canada was “not as bad as it is in America,” Cole set out to document just one year of racism and resistance in his own country in his debut book The Skin We’re In. “I wanted to write a book that basically said, ‘What if we don’t talk about the U.S. for a minute? What if we just had to look at our country? Not by comparison – better or worse – but just on its own merits. What would we see?’”
The year he chose was 2017. In March, he documents the public outrage over the death of Abdirahman Abdi, a Somali man who died after a violent interaction with Ottawa Police; in July, he takes inspiration from the coast-to-coast Indigenous protests against Canada 150 celebrations; in November, he witnesses the fight against – and ultimate cancellation of – the controversial program that put police officers in Toronto schools.
He spoke to The Globe and Mail about the lessons learned from a year of observing and participating in the struggle against white supremacy. For many, that term evokes images of white men with tiki torches marching in Charlottesville or Klan members burning crosses, but Cole defines it as “a system of power that seeks to benefit white people above all others” – it goes beyond any individual or conscious intention.
You tell this story about how when you were in school, your teacher moved you to another spot in the classroom because you were talking so much and how humiliating this experience was because you were one of the only Black kids in class. You say, ‘my country will argue that my teacher didn’t realize I took it that way, that he never intended it that way.’ How much did you encounter being gaslit like that growing up?
Well, a lot, but I think that when you're young you don't know what gaslighting is. Even as an adult, when people are trying to tell you you're not experiencing the racism that you think you're experiencing, it's destabilizing. That's the function of it.
What’s so interesting is how invested people are in describing Black people’s reality back to us as if we don’t understand what we’re living. I used to be really ashamed of my Blackness, but as I have grown into it, now, the thing that people do is that gaslighting where they say, “Well, you’re just trying to benefit. You only talk this racism stuff to silence us white people, to make us afraid to say anything.” When again, really, what’s happening is that they’re trying to make you afraid of speaking your reality, speaking your truth, speaking the truth.
This community is so diverse: by class, by ethnicity, by immigration status. Do you think that there can ever be a united Black advocacy movement?
I think that there is a unique pressure on Black people to be united. And I think that that pressure comes from within. Steve Biko said that the greatest weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed. I think about that quote every day because there is sometimes a sense of defeat, of predetermined failure, among Black people that makes us believe there’s something wrong with us. We take that on as Black people, and we say, if other racial groups are doing better than us, then there must be something wrong with us as Black people. And one of the things that comes out of that is this notion that we are uniquely disorganized, and uniquely disunited. White supremacy robs us of our individuality.
There are always going to be differences of opinion on how we fight as Black people, on how we organize, on what tactics and strategies that we use. I'm really interested in having those discussions, disagreements, challenges. I want us as Black people to challenge each other. I don't want people to sit in a room with the government and say, “What do you need?” and then come out to our community and pretend that the advocacy is for us when it's really not.
You talk about different ways of organizing. Going back a couple of years, you ran for city council. If you take on a position in elected government, do you feel like there’s too much compromise?
We are looking for a Black Messiah and one isn't coming. You know, we are expecting too much of an individual Black person when they go into a system that serves white supremacy, that they will somehow magically be able to take all of that on. Do you work from inside or do you work from outside is the wrong question. If you get inside, what do you do with that?
If government is supposed to serve us and you as a Black person get in there, and you can’t force the hand of government, maybe you should leave, because your presence will be used against the entire Black community as a way of saying, “Well, if it was so bad, why is this Black person here?”
You were at a summit for Black Canadians and you stood up and challenged then-immigration minister Ahmed Hussen [about the pending deportation to Somalia of Abdoul Abdi] and you describe being scolded by other attendees. One Black woman said to you, ‘We don’t often get our people in positions like his and we need to be patient with him.’ What was it like for you hearing that from Black people?
This is the life of any Black person that wants to challenge institutional power and white supremacy. It's being told by our own people, who are highly educated, “Don't ruffle their feathers. They'll punish us worse. We'll get a worse beating than we're already getting.” I understand exactly where that woman who said that to me was coming from.
These notions about us playing the long game as Black people, those notions are always abstract. They don’t deal with tangible, real-life situations that are happening now in our day-to-day life. No amount of sitting quietly in meetings and smiling and nodding and saying, “Let’s take the long game” was going to save Abdoul.
Where are the risk takers? You can be in government and still take risks. [NDP MP] Matthew Green just got elected. He’s a Black man in Hamilton. He went into the House of Commons and in one of his first public statements in that room he said the words “white supremacy.” Matthew is one of the only Black people in that entire room who’s actually threatening to change anything. You have to take risks. You maybe are paying off your mortgage, you have a salaried position with some benefits and some tenure. Well, there’s a lot more at stake now, if you want to take these risks, than I am talking about. But that’s why we have to act collectively.
During the protests against Canada 150 celebrations, you took a great deal of inspiration from a lot of very outspoken Indigenous activists. There are so many shared traumas and experiences between these two populations – mass incarceration, overrepresentation in the child-welfare system. Do you feel like there are missed opportunities for working collectively?
The pressure is not on the white majority in this country to end injustice. They say, “Well, why aren’t you guys more united, you Black and Indigenous people?” They don't question their own lack of solidarity in the struggle; they question ours.
We do, as Black and Indigenous peoples, need to find ways to work together. I think about the Two Row Wampum covenant. It was created to say that Indigenous peoples and other settlers that have come to this territory can live in harmony by riding along a parallel path, but not crossing into each other’s path. They are learning across and sharing across the difference. It’s okay to have distinct culture, distinct heritage, distinct practice, but we must build solidarity and partnership through respect, through friendship, through sharing.
I feel like white people who read your book will ask, ‘what is the most useful thing white people can do in in an effort to to end white supremacy?’
Stop centering themselves. I wrote a whole book showing what Black people do. I didn’t just talk about the bad struggles that Black people go through. I didn’t just talk about the pain and the suffering. I showed step by step in that book how Black people and how Indigenous peoples sat together, thought together, strategized together, engaged in actions, engaged in petitions, made media statements, barricaded highways. It’s all there. White people just don’t want to do it. They want to keep asking, “What do I do? What do I do? What do I do?” Feigning surprise, feigning confusion. “Oh my gosh, this is such a complex world.” No, it’s not actually that complicated.
This interview has been condensed and edited
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