Intersections of Blackness, queerness and activism

Posted on Monday, October 5, 2020

Activists Desmond Cole, left, and Reakash Walters, right.

Desmond Cole, left, and Reakash Walters, right.

Portrait of Shadé Edwards

Shadé Edwards

“Your pro-Blackness cannot be anti-queer, and your pro-queerness cannot be anti-Black. Excluding marginalized groups from our activism does nothing but reinforce the systems of discrimination and violence that we’re trying to undo,” says Shadé Edwards, a second-year student in the Faculty of Law, Common Law Section, who organized and moderated a virtual teach-in, “The Intersections of Blackness, Queerness and Activism: A Conversation with Desmond Cole and Reakash Walters,” for a group of 500 uOttawa community members on September 17.

“Black queer people live at the intersections of multiple marginalized identities, operating within the confines of both anti-Blackness and anti-queerness,” she says. “As a result, they are forced to endure multiple forms of violence and are entangled in resistance movements that often either deny their race or their sexuality.”

Presented in collaboration with the Black Law Students’ Association, the Common Law Student Society (AÉCLSS) and OUTLaw, a group for 2SLGBTQ+ uOttawa law students and their allies, the talk centred around intersectional discrimination, such as the erasure of queer identities in Black spaces, and of Black identities in queer spaces, abolition, community-led responses to harm and violence, and activism.

Leading the conversation were activist and award-winning journalist Desmond Cole, author of the national best-seller The Skin We’re In: A Year of Black Resistance and Power, and uOttawa law alumna Reakash Walters, a writer, community advocate, podcast producer and articling student.

The following are summaries of their talks. Quotes have been edited for brevity.

Screen shot of Desmond Cole speaking at the event through Zoom.

Desmond Cole: The inclusivity of radical Black, queer, feminist politics

When people engage in discussions with Desmond Cole about Black people’s struggle for liberation, he said that one of the most common questions that comes up is “How do we engage in this fight? Is it better to fight from within the system, or from the outside?”

“I think there is a big problem with this ‘inside versus outside’ question,” said Cole. “If we frame the question in this way, we assume that the systems that we are fighting against, the systems of white supremacy, patriarchy and colonialism, that they are a constant, that they have to exist. […] So, it’s not whether you want to work inside the system or outside of it, it’s whether you think the system should exist at all, or have the right to exert its dominance over all of us, and whether you think there’s another way for us to govern ourselves and relate to one another. That’s the real political struggle.”

Rather than find ways to navigate or survive systems of domination and control, Cole drew our attention to radical Black, queer, feminist ideology, which calls for dismantling these systems in favour of building relationships and systems based on love, care, respect and accountability.

Cole named Black Lives Matter Toronto as an example of a movement that follows this “radical” tradition and rejects the idea of working within the system. When he talked about BLMTO stopping the Pride parade in 2016, demanding, among other things, that police be banned from marching in their uniforms, he said, “The defining feature is BLMTO saying ‘We don’t want to work with the police or negotiate with them. […] We don’t need you if you’re not here to serve all queer people, including Black queer and trans people, Black disabled people, Black poor people…’”

Cole argued that any advocacy group that doesn’t attempt to challenge or dismantle systems of oppression either won’t bring about real change or is engaging in “the politics of tokenism,” which he says undermines and often co-opts the real struggle of those who remain on the margins.

“I begrudge approaches to activism that ask Black people to work within systems that are killing us, instead of dismantling existing systems and replacing them with systems of care,” said Cole. “We are passing off our ability as Black people to fit into, gain leadership positions in, get jobs and access to these dominator systems, passing that tokenism off as if it’s antiracism, and it’s not. Being allowed to participate in the dominant system, and in the dominant structures of power, is not antiracism just because you’re Black.”

Screen shot of Reakash Walters speaking at the Zoom event.

Reakash Walters: Cultivating community safety through transformative justice

In her opening remarks, Reakash Walters recounted the stories of Willimae Moore, the first Black lesbian in Canada to be charged with sexual assault, and Chevranna Abdi, a Black transgender woman in Hamilton, Ontario, who died after being dragged down seven flights of stairs face down.

“I’m sharing these stories to illustrate how state-funded institutions collaborate to criminalize, isolate and ‘other’ people who live on the margins,” said Walters. “And so, while some members of the LGBTQ2SI community may have felt the presence of police violence shift over time, which is reasonable, Black, 2-Spirit Indigenous, trans and gender-nonconforming queer folk are still not safe from police violence and neglect. And that is not OK!”

Walters points out that communities most affected by state violence and surveillance often opt out of calling the police for fear of facing increased violence. Instead, they seek out alternative approaches to de-escalate and heal within community. That is the principle behind transformative justice, a political framework and an ever-expanding set of strategies that aim to help build “communities of care” that can respond to conflict, violence, harm and abuse, without inciting more violence.

“Transformative justice interventions do not rely on the state — police, prison, criminal justice systems or foster care systems — and (they) actively cultivate the things we know bring safety, whether that’s through secure housing, free transit, minimum guaranteed income, healing, accountability and resilience,” she said. “These calls to defund the police, they’re actually a calling back of community power. We say defund the police because the state has not shown us that it is well-placed to decide what community safety looks like. I believe we have to shift our focus, funding and resources away from policing and punishment, towards community-based solutions to harm and violence.”

Couldn’t make it? See the event in full on the BLSA Facebook page.

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