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We need a frank conversation about race, not another racism 'test'

Photo: David Coombs

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After my rabble.ca blog post on radio talk show host Jerry Agar's response to Black Lives Matter Toronto Yusra Khogali's "Allah, give me the strength not to cuss/kill these men and white folks out here" tweet, it dawned on me that something more than op-eds and blogs needs to happen in response to BLMTO's tent city occupation.

I also read writer and activist Desmond Cole in the Toronto Star where he argued that we (Agar) should not mistake responses to violence (Khogali) for violence itself. And once again I wondered, can something more come out of all of this brouhaha?  

Cole noted that the BLMTO movement has been largely driven by young Black queer and trans women (the absence of Black men, many of whom are too often the subjects of police violence, education push-out practices and incarceration, is palpable). He also asserted that Khogali does not need to apologize for a tweet from her personal Twitter account, especially since we have yet to hear an apology from Toronto Police from actions by officers on March 21, when they pushed and kicked BLMT protesters demonstrating outside 40 College Street.

But if we are to move beyond mere chatter, we have to recognize that all parties to the table just don't live in the same world.

For some, Khogali's use of the word "kill" is unequivocally a call to violence. For others, as Cole alludes to, it is an appeal to restraint and wisdom in the face of violence, racism, and misogyny.

But the reality is that many Canadians just can't relate to the picture BLMTO has painted. Too many just don't get the frustration on the part of Black youth; they don't get what it's like to have your communities under almost constant surveillance by police; and they certainly don't get what it is like to feel that your life -- your being -- does not matter.

But at the same time, the minute you threaten to harm another person, it does not matter your intentions or reasons, your message will fall upon deaf ears -- the very ears you want to hear you and to acknowledge that your life matters. And so the issue is how do we get to a place where we can have a real conversation about race, without having to put who is and who is not a "racist" to the test.

For example, in February (Black History Month), the CBC program Marketplace conducted an hour-long investigation where it "put Canada to the test" in order to explore the question, are we racist?

The show featured a Black, Aboriginal, and white man who travelled coast to coast, sought housing, shopped in retail stores, and even took an implicit racial bias test in order to reveal how (not why) Black and Aboriginal men are treated differently/discriminated against while white Canadians are not.

What does this kind of media do? What does "revealing" something that racialized communities already live on a day-to-day basis accomplish? Who is meant to answer that question? 

If anything good is to come from Khogali's tweet and Agar's retweet it is the confirmation that Canada, just like our neighbour to the south, has a problem that needs to be addressed. Rather than one side slinging accusations at the other, why has the media not recognized the need to have a public discussion about race in Canada?

Why are we not holding court on the issue in a mutually respectful public forum -- off the streets of Toronto, outside the impromptu steps of Queen's Park and away from a hostile confrontation in front of police headquarters where it can easily be dismissed, delegitimized, and eventually dismantled? 

Until there is a conversation between BLMTO, the media, public officials, and Black community members the needle on Black lives will remain stuck in perpetual protest not progress.

Cheryl Thompson has a PhD from McGill University. She is the 2015-2016 Recipient of the Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship which she holds at the University of Toronto. She also teaches courses on Black Canadian Studies, Visual Culture, Media and Identity, and Transnational Feminism. She can be found on Twitter @DrCherylT.

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Photo: David Coombs

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