On Monday, March 27, students and McGill community members gathered for a talk by acclaimed journalist Desmond Cole on the language and logic of white supremacy.
Kiana Saint-Macary, the President of the McGill Debating Union, opened the event by introducing Cole, describing him as “a Toronto-based journalist, activist, and author whose work […] focuses on issues of race in Canada and abroad – including his much celebrated piece, The Skin I’m In: I’ve been interrogated by police 150 times, all because I am Black.”
The language of white supremacy
Cole began his talk with a ‘Be it resolved’ statement, a common format used in debates.
“Be it resolved that white supremacy informs all aspects of Canadian life, particularly our language,” he said. “The way that we use language informs pretty much everything that we do. It describes everything that we do. It influences and phrases our thoughts and our actions in this country.”
Cole explained that, in our society, individuals are conditioned to the language of white supremacy and often use it even when fighting to dismantle oppressive structures. This enforces the power of white supremacy by implicating its opponents in the very system they are trying to destroy. As Cole put it, “One of our big problems with white supremacy is that [its] power forces those of us who want to destroy it to engage in an endless debate with it.” Cole insisted that eliminating the harmful and insidious language of white supremacy is a necessary step in dismantling the system entirely.
“Be it resolved that white supremacy informs all aspects of Canadian life, particularly our language.”
He then discussed James McGill’s enslavement of Black and Indigenous people: “This institution, like so many institutions in Canada, was founded by somebody who […] actually owned, if you can say that, human beings.”
The way that people talk about influential figures such as James McGill, he explained, illustrates the power of the language of white supremacy; the word ‘slave’ itself is part of this language.
“Nobody is actually born [a slave],” said Cole. “A slave is not an occupation that you can aspire to, a job title that you can hold. The biggest problem with [the word] is that when we say ‘slave,’ […] we’re describing the condition of somebody who had something done to them rather than describing the condition of the person who’s doing it. […] That’s not really talking about the issue, that’s talking around it.”
Cole went on to point out that when people say “James McGill [and others like him] was a slaveowner,” they use the passive voice and fail to assign appropriate blame. In order to dismantle white supremacy, he argued, we need to be specific about these atrocities.
“As a reflex,” Cole explained, “people start saying, ‘Yeah, but that’s not all [insert slaveowner here] did […] how can you just limit their whole character and their identity?’”
Apologism in Canadian politics
He then provided a recent example of this phenomenon: Lynn Beyak of the Conservative Party and her recent remarks to the Canadian Senate about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
“The biggest problem with [the word] is that when we say ‘slave,’ […] we’re describing the condition of somebody who had something done to them rather than describing the condition of the person who’s doing it.”
“The Truth and Reconciliation Commission […] was an incredibly thorough investigation into the residential school system in Canada,” explained Cole, “that system which took untold thousands of Indigenous children away from their parents. About 6,000 children that we know of died in residential schools, but I would more accurately say they were killed. Those who were not killed […] were denied the ability to speak their own languages, denied the ability to practice their own spiritual and religious practices. They were denied the ability to have contact anymore with their communities […] The philosophy behind residential schools was to kill the ‘Indian’ in the child. That’s white supremacy.
Cole went on to quote Beyak’s speech to the Senate: “‘I speak […] mostly in memory of the kindly and well-intentioned men and women and their descendants, …] whose remarkable works good deeds and historical tales of the residential schools go unacknowledged for the most part,’ she said. And Bayak went on to say ‘Mistakes were made at residential schools, in many instances horrible mistakes that overshadowed some of the good things that also happened at those schools.’”
“This is how every politician is either taught to speak or learns how to speak” said Cole. “Its particularly effective as a tool in what I’m calling this language and logic of white supremacy. Who made the mistakes, Lynn? […] If she’s saying ‘I don’t want to erase that, I’m not trying to paper over that, I realize it’s horrible,’ why do you use this language of passive voice? Why do you hide the perpetrator if you’re not ashamed of it yourself? […] This use of language informs a whole way of thinking and dodging accountability and shifting blame and erasing genocide and huge atrocities that have happened around the world.”
Common arguments in defense of racism
Cole continued by outlining a series of defenses and concessions designed to maintain white supremacy.
“’Race has nothing to do with it.’ Now this is not a concession. This is actually the starting point for white supremacy,” he said. “This is white supremacy’s sweet spot. 95 per cent of the discussions that I see or am forced to engage in in this country about this issue start with this sentence. […] This is the denial that we always have to overcome with people, particularly people in power, who want to tell us that we somehow do not know what we’re talking about.”
“Why do you hide the perpetrator if you’re not ashamed of it yourself?”
Cole proceeded to share recent stories of police violence and brutality towards Black people. For example, he told the story of Andrew Loku, a Black man with a history of mental illness who was killed by Toronto police in his apartment building in July 2015. Loku had been carrying a hammer and having a conversation with his upstairs neighbours about a noise complaint when a police officer arrived at the scene and shot him.
Following the incident, the head of the Toronto police force’s most powerful lobbyist group wrote an op-ed in the Toronto Star.
Cole quoted the op-ed: “The fact that he was Black had no bearing on the officer’s decision. […] Those who are promoting baseless accusations of race being a factor in Mr. Loku’s death have no legitimate place in this debate. Collectively, we need to ensure that the mentally ill are provided treatment by continuing to work to improve mental health care accessibility and support.”
This is an example of this logic of white supremacy in action, said Cole. Instead of acknowledging race as an issue in the incident, the lobbyist focused on mental illness.
“‘[It’s] not race, look over here, it’s the other thing,’” he said. “And in this case it’s mental health. We’ve heard this time and time again.”
Even when people concede that racism may be a factor in a given act of violence, said Cole, another common argument is “don’t judge until you have all the facts.”
“’Race has nothing to do with it.’ Now this is not a concession. This is actually the starting point for white supremacy.”
“White supremacy loves this,” Cole explained. “It’s one of its favorites. You can’t know anything for sure as long as white supremacy’s getting fingers pointed at it […] ‘Let’s not jump to the conclusion that it was about race. Let’s wait till all the facts are in.’”
This is a problematic mechanism which aims to run out the clock on an important issue, he explained. In most cases, the public never gets all the information, and denial by those supporting white supremacists can continue indefinitely.
Another part of this logic, Cole continued, is the suggestion that racists are ignorant and can’t help themselves.
“Well, doesn’t somebody have to teach you how to call a Black person a n****r or are you just born that way?” he said. “You don’t accidentally pick this stuff up if you don’t have contact with Black people. […] It is never a mistake. If you enable racism you are part of the problem. If […] you say that somebody who wants to come on McGill campus and give a talk who is advancing white supremacy, ‘Well I defend their free speech’, [then] you defend their white supremacist speech. Period. You’re enabling this to happen.”
“What we’re up against is willful ignorance,” Cole continued. “What we’re up against is the passive voice, ‘mistakes were made.’ We’re up against obtuseness, we’re up against people [feigning ignorance] when they know full well what we’re talking about because that allows them to keep running out the shock clock.”
Cole finished his talk by arguing that white privilege is a construct, and those who have that privilege must exist in a space of discomfort where they are forced to recognize and dismantle white supremacy.
“‘[It’s] not race, look over here, it’s the other thing.’ […] We’ve heard this time and time again.”
“I’m not saying ‘white privilege’ […] anymore,” he told his audience. “Again, it’s not something you were just born with and inherited. It’s something that you have to work everyday to protect and keep away from people. So I don’t want to talk about privilege. I want to put you in that uncomfortable place that you’ll be forced […] to interrogate yourself to turn the mirror back on yourself instead of asking me all the questions.
At the end of the talk Cole opened the conversation up to audience members.
“People are often in media and social commentary these days talking about racism as a disease,” asked one attendee. “What do you think about that in terms of how it shifts or removes responsibility from people for their own racism?”
“We have to be careful with that language,” answered Cole, “because […] you’re not a victim of racism by perpetuating it. […] [Racist logics] are also things that we do and introduce into the world as human beings that were not here before us. I think that a good way to deal with that is again to say, who is suffering from this disease and who is benefitting from it? […] What do the people who benefit do when they realize they’re benefitting from somebody else’s illness?”