On March 27, Toronto activist and journalist Desmond Cole spoke as the Debate Union’s David A. Freedman Speaker for 2017. The title of his talk was, “The Language and Logic of White Supremacy.” There were about 150 people in the audience, and over 2,000 people watching over the Facebook livestream. The subject of the event was the influence of white supremacy and how it can be combatted.
Cole discussed how people passively dismiss white supremacy when they should instead actively counter it. He used conversations about James McGill as an example of people downplaying the racist ideology in their phrasing.
“[People say that] several slaves worked on James McGill’s property,” Cole said. “[Instead, they should say that] James McGill enslaved several Black and Indigenous People and forced them to work on his property.”
Cole emphasized how white supremacy benefits from speakers’ reluctance to distinguish oppressors.
“There is a huge pressure and temptation to never talk about [white supremacy],” Cole said. “What are we afraid of describing, by [being specific]? [….] This is how we skirt over history, this how we use white supremacists’ language and logic [….] That is dangerous and when we do not counter it, we are reinforcing white supremacy.”
Cole argued in favour of fighting systems of oppression by calling them by their name, even if it might make people uncomfortable.
“We cannot ever—if we want to fight this language and logic—reside in a comfortable place,” Cole said. “There is no real salvation from [white supremacy].”
Cole proceeded to break down the logic of white supremacists into five steps: “Race has nothing to do with it,” "It’s not about race, it’s about …," “Race may be a factor, but it’s not the only factor," "Don't judge until we have all the facts," and “It was a stupid mistake.” Sequentially, each point shows how white supremacists try to justify their behaviour on factors other than race.
Throughout his talk, Cole directed attention towards incidents of anti-black racism in Canada. This included the murders of Andrew Loku and Abdirahman Abdi, both of whom were killed by Canadian Police Officers.
“We particularly thought it was important to get [a speaker] that was focused on Canada,” Greta Hoaken, chair of Exhibitionary Debates, said.” I think a lot of race and racism seems to be about America. These problems are not just [in the U.S.], but very much [in Canada].”
The talk exceeded the allotted amount of time by an hour due to the high number of audience questions.
In an interview with The McGill Tribune following his talk, Cole suggested that passivity allows white supremacy to persist.
“White supremacy is like a train, and we are literally trying to knock the train off its tracks, but all of this politeness, all this hearing of microaggressions, and macroaggressions and not doing or saying anything about it, allows this train to keep going on its same destructive track,” Cole said.
Representative of the Black Students’ Network (BSN) Christelle Tessono spoke highly of Cole and his message.
“[The BSN] loved it,” Tessono said. “We were glad to see a Black journalist at McGill discussing some of the issues […,]It is very important to sensitize the McGill community to such issues and he did in such a true fashion.”