Markian Lozowchuk / Toronto Life
Markian Lozowchuk / Toronto Life

On Tuesday night, the UTSU and the Arts and Science Students’ Union put on a talk titled "We are in a State of Emergency: Anti-Black Racism in Toronto." The talk was anchored by Toronto journalist Desmond Cole, a contributor to many local publications including the Toronto Star, Torontoist, and Toronto Life.

In the wake of the recent death threats against black students at the Mizzou campus, U of T students have taken the lead in mobilizing Canadian university students of African origin in a show of solidarity. They have created a new movement to openly share their own stories about what it is like to live as a black student on campus using the hashtag #blackoncampusuoft.

Desmond Cole 

Cole was a great choice to lead the conversation, one that he stressed focused on contradictions in Toronto’s often-praised tolerant (a word he considers to be gross) multicultural society, and the biases that are still imposed by law enforcement on Toronto residents with darker skin.

Cole started the talk by bringing up a not well-known fact of Toronto history—that Toronto had a black city councillor at the turn of the 20th century by the name of William Peyton Hubbard. Hubbard was Toronto’s alderman who represented one of Toronto’s whitest, richest neighbourhoods. Cole found it fascinating that Hubbard was a man who had gained such political power, yet despite his titles also experienced racial powerlessness as an elected black politician in an era where bars and restaurants in Toronto still banned black patrons. He brought that comparison to the modern tensions with police and black bodies, citing numerous cases like Lester Donaldson, a man with mental problems who was killed by police in 1989, the killings of Michael Eligon, a 29-year-old man who was shot in a hospital gown, and Andrew Loku, a father of five killed in July of this year.

Cole wrote a groundbreaking article for Toronto Life in April of this year entitled “The Skin I’m In,” which listed dozens of personal encounters he had growing up in Oshawa, going to university in Kingston, and being a writer in Toronto with police who would follow and interrogate him without any just cause. He brought up the practice of carding, where police officers collect information about individuals who haven’t committed crimes. He stated that 27 per cent of carding incidents were targeted at black residents (as skin colour is still used as a descriptor in the forms) despite them making up just nine per cent of Toronto’s population. Cole argued that systemic carding results in a right to suspect the innocent on a stigmatized basis, and since carding creates a log of a person’s interactions and level of cooperation with the police, that information can be seen by employers when they request a criminal background check.

The Discussion

After Cole ended his speech, students joined the conversation to discuss their own racialized experiences of Toronto. It started on the role and topic of allies in the community. A student feared that allies in opposing anti-black racism could simply be masking old notions of “white saviourism.” Cole discussed the semantics, preferring the word “comrade” to describe common values, and that “ally” signifies a relationship with boundaries, knowing both how to keep distance and trying not to offend.

Fixing the existing problems, according to Cole, also requires internal reflection not only from others, but from blacks themselves. Instead of focusing on the macro issues, Cole suggested adopting an attitude where “I can work on myself and hopefully have an impact as far as my hands can reach.”

Several students discussed racist attitudes among non-whites growing up in Scarborough when East and South Asian students would defend their parents’ race-based fears of black people as “just how they are.” Cole added that there's much difficulty among marginalized groups to discuss the “hierarchy of who is suffering” more. He believes this feeling is driven by capitalism “encouraging competition, even under oppression.”

Racism in Person and in the Media

The discussion shifted to how to react to “the action” of racism in conversation. Cole said there was immense power in questions in such situations. Instead of simply labeling someone as a racist, “make people unpack their own bullshit” and ask them questions about their statements so they can internalize their words.

The talk ended with Cole explaining the inherent “reward” in media not discussing these difficult issues despite their influence. They do not have a commitment to enter the anti-racism conversation because 97 per cent of print columnists in Canada are white, a fact which warrants reflection on our part.

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