by Michelle Arbuckle and Sandy Crawley
Many of our previous champions of free expression have been celebrated for their staunch defence of anyone’s and everyone’s right to expression. In fact, many have argued that a stable and progressive society depends on that very principle. But Desmond Cole—the Toronto activist and author who is our champion for 2021—wants us to consider how language can connect, affect, move, threaten, diminish and even kill.
Cole is not here to debate. The celebrated author of the bestselling book The Skin We’re In: A Year of Black Resistance and Power clearly argues that no non-Black person should ever say the N-word. He doesn’t shy away from connecting the right to unlimited freedom of expression with the power to control people.
“Every genocide in human history that we know about is always accompanied by dehumanizing people by dehumanizing language,” he says, “and by rhetoric that seeks to justify what we’re doing to the other.”
Recently named to Maclean’s Power List of “Canadians who are breaking ground, leading the debate and shaping how we think and live,” Cole is known for his work which contributes to the Black Lives Matter movement and for his vocal efforts to remove the Toronto police from public schools. In Ontario, he engages in issues that include housing, homelessness, racial discrimination, civic engagement and social supports for youth.
Activism wasn’t always the goal. At 22, Cole left Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., somewhat disillusioned and unsure of what he wanted. Having grown up in the suburbs, he headed into Toronto optimistic about making a fresh start in the city. But that optimism started to crumble when he found himself falling on hard times.
While couch surfing at friends’ apartments, Cole landed at a youth shelter run by the YMCA. Given his curious, friendly and magnanimous nature, he made relationships with the support centre’s staff, and they hired him as a youth outreach worker. Through this work, he saw young people face the closure of support programs and the devastating effects of low welfare rates and insufficient detox facilities in the community. He wanted to challenge the way that social services and government supports were or were not provided in the world.
Cole started voicing his opinions at Toronto City Council meetings and writing for the now-defunct Torontoist. They reprinted a blog post that he wrote about the introduction of police to Toronto schools and their effect on racialized students. Then a first-person narrative about growing up Black in southwestern Ontario appeared in Toronto Life magazine, prompting a city-wide discussion of the Black experience and anti-Black racism. Cole was featured on the cover of the May 2015 issue along with the cover line “I’ve been stopped by cops on the street 50 times. I’m not a criminal.”
But don’t make the mistake of trying to differentiate Cole the activist from Cole the journalist. He’s not interested in that conversation.
“I’m proud when people now say that they can’t tell whether I’m a journalist or an activist.”
“When I, as a journalist, apply a pro-Black liberation lens to my work and report that the police are not good for me and for Black people and not good for Indigenous people, it’s not an open question. I’m called an activist,” Cole says. “When I, as a journalist, am willing to also put my body on the line to defend people in my community, to defend people from police officers who come into encampments in the most callous way, removing people from parks during a pandemic and for whom a shelter bed is not an option, I’m called an activist.
“I don’t mind because, if you got into the business of journalism and you don’t have a conscience, that’s not my problem. That’s your problem … I’m proud when people now say that they can’t tell whether I’m a journalist or an activist. That doesn’t bother me because I don’t want my contribution to support pretending that the world is a neutral place and allowing my reader to decide whether or not all of the injustices that I’m reporting on are fair.”
During his two-year tenure as a columnist with the Toronto Star, Cole commonly heard people say, “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” He still deeply believes in this principle and strives to uphold it, even when comforting the afflicted curbs freedom of expression.
“What is the positive benefit of a white professor saying the N-word in a classroom?” Cole asks pointedly. “What people want in these cases is a neutral way to harm people. That doesn’t exist. People want to pretend that you can use that word in a neutral fashion. They are simply mistaken.
“What people want to disagree with really is context … If you think that you are championing the notion of context and that words themselves don’t have any power, well, the context of the N-word is it being the last thing that millions of my ancestors heard before they were murdered. That’s the context of that word.”
Cole’s argument refutes the right to afflict the afflicted, the right to kick those already on the ground. “The result is that a speaker can walk into a public space and spread hurtful misinformation about a trans woman,” he asks, “but that trans woman can’t use the washroom in that public space.”
“We have to consider the consequences of being allowed to deny people’s humanity.”
While some argue that we cannot ignore the net benefits of unlimited freedom of expression, Cole doesn’t see any net benefits. He sees consequences. “We have to consider the consequences of being allowed to deny people’s humanity,” he says.
“Every genocide in human history that we know about is always accompanied by dehumanizing people, by dehumanizing language and by rhetoric that seeks to justify what we’re doing to the other. To justify violence against trans people, against Black people. That’s their function,” he says.
“And that’s why those arguments were created in the first place; they continue to serve the same purpose,” he adds. “So all I can say is that for me, you have the freedom to use these words in this language, and I have the freedom to meet you where you do those things and to tell you to shut the hell up.”
Cole recounted examples where free expression principles were invoked to allow racist and bigoted language in schools, libraries, journalism and publishing. He referred to a study that found most Canadians favoured using the N-word in classrooms if “it’s being done for an educational purpose.”
“So here’s white people creating a word to subvert us, and they still get to decide how it gets to be used against us,” says Cole. It’s in public “where we cannot let people who are preaching hatred come out openly and without contest.”
Cole says we must push back on the normalization of dehumanizing language. “This was supposed to be a lesson in history. To say we can’t let these things happen again. Because we know what they lead to … Are we asking people to give up the ability to say that word? We absolutely are. It is not zero sum; it is not neutral. We are asking you to stop doing something that is hurtful and harmful.
“I know that sounds uncomfortable. The ability to call me that word facilitates the ability to treat me like that word,” he says. “And so I have to take it seriously, and I have to be willing to defend myself, and all the good intentions in the world don’t save me when people are allowed to call me that word.”
Cole understands that the conversation is uncomfortable for some people, and he thinks that the discomfort comes from giving up power.
He asks: “Why do you need that word?”
Michelle Arbuckle is a co-chair of the Book and Periodical Council’s Freedom of Expression Committee and the author of this story. She and Sandy Crawley, the executive director of the National Reading Campaign, interviewed Desmond Cole on November 19, 2020.
Desmond Cole photo by Kate Yang-Nikodym