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Ian Williams reflects on being Black in Canada in essay collection Disorientation — read an excerpt now

Disorientation by Ian Williams is a finalist for the 2021 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction.

Disorientation is a finalist for the 2021 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction

Ian Williams is a Brampton, Ont.-raised poet and writer. (Justin Morris)

Disorientation by Ian Williams is a finalist for the 2021 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction.

The $60,000 prize is the largest prize for nonfiction in Canada. The winner will be announced on Nov. 3, 2021.

In Disorientation, Williams captures the impact of racial encounters on racialized people, especially when one's minding their own business. Sometimes, the consequences are only irritating, but sometimes they are deadly. Driven by the police killings and street protests of 2020, Williams realized he could offer a Canadian perspective on race. He explores things such as: the unmistakable moment when a child realizes they're Black, the 10 characteristics of institutional whiteness, how friendship helps protect against being a target of racism and blame culture.

Williams is a poet, novelist and professor from Brampton, Ont., who is currently teaching at the University of Toronto. His debut novel, Reproduction, won the 2019 Scotiabank Giller Prize. He is also the author of the poetry collection Personals, which was a finalist for the 2013 Griffin Poetry Prize.

Read an excerpt from Disorientation below.


My resolution this year is to learn how to swim. It was my resolution last year. And the year before. And, well, let's stop there. I imagine myself falling out of a burning airplane into the ocean like an action hero. I crash into the water, conscious for a hopeful moment, before floundering and drowning. The scenario is illogical, but I have my reasons.

I also have several reasons for why it is taking me so long to learn.

  1. All the pools that I've entered have been unpleasantly cold and I don't like the sensation of cold water on my body, especially my back. I don't like the sound of underwater in my ears. You can feel the current of conversations around race, particularly in America. You're entering an environment that has cast you as rebellious, violent, and troublemaking, if Black, and as blameworthy, racist, and heartless, if white. None of this feels good washing over your head.

  2. I haven't learned how to swim because of a story, internalized from childhood, that my aunt told of a Black boy in England who was struggling in a pool. He could have drowned. And the swimming instructor said, Leave him. N……… don't float anyhow. I imagine the instructor turning away to deal with the white students while the Black child splashed and gulped. You already have an internal story that makes you reluctant or fearful to approach the subject of race. If you're Black, you expect any attempt to be met with pity or demands for proof. You've learned early that any mention of a white person in a racial situation that affects you is akin to an accusation. So you bear the microaggressions. If white, maybe you witnessed another white person get eviscerated for a joke or watching out for the welfare of the neighbourhood. So you're just going to avoid Black people. If you see one leaning against a car, you're not going to call the police (that's probably for the best). You're not going to say anything whatsoever about race, because you're not stupid.

  3. The thought of learning to swim among six-year-olds with water wings could be an amusing future anecdote, but I'd rather not endure the present awkwardness. I should know how to swim by now. So pride gets in the way. This type of pride is buoyed by shame rather than deflated by it. You should know more about race, but you're embarrassed to be counted among the ignorant, so you don't ask. Of course, there are adult swimming classes. My racialized friend attended the first session of one where the entire class comprised three shirtless racialized men. It was like Swimming for Immigrants, he said. You don't want to be in the company of people like you.

  4. Let's say I survive the classes and learn how to swim. Once the lessons are over, where will I go swimming? Am I going to doggy-paddle in some public pool with Olympians zooming and sharking around me? Who's eager to get into emotionally murky waters with people who've been swimming a long time?

  5. I'm afraid of the deep end. I wouldn't mind staying in the shallow end where I could put my feet down. Maybe I just need to learn how to float. If the plane crashes and I survive the impact, I could float on the water until help comes. When I got tired, I'd hold on to buoyant debris, like Kate Winslet in Titanic. You can keep your head above water with a few popular opinions. You don't need to look into the faces of slaves in photographs. You get it. Slavery bad, equality good. Respect Black people. If you're Black, you believe that your experience excuses you from understanding exactly what happened back then. You're Black and that's enough. This one's tricky. Your experience is important, yes, but it's not everything. When you position yourself in history, you enter into a community of people with similar experiences and you observe how the racial climate changes over time. For white people, it's worth learning some history and theory and more: it's worth having experiences of disorientation and discomfort, as a means of empathy and as a way of accessing courage, which only grows from challenge and exercise.

  6. I have a sensitive bladder. I am concerned that in a moment of stress I might piss in the pool and get banned forever. For starters, don't piss in the pool. There are places for that. Don't contaminate discussions by trolling around and advocating on behalf of the devil. Not pissing in the pool is for your own good too. There are Internet forums full of piss. I doubt you want to swim in the putrid opinions of narrow-minded folks. If that's what you want, you probably shouldn't be swimming. You probably should find a community of kinky people and have them piss on you.

LISTEN | Ian Williams discuss Disorientation:

Ian delves into Black identity and what is concealed and revealed in his new book 13:30

Although I've wanted to swim for an embarrassingly long time, I have no ambitions to be a lifeguard. In fact, if you told me that I should learn to swim so that I could save other people, I'd say, Great, but what's in it for me? So much for the kindness of my heart. Of course, you're more likely to leave comfortable ignorance behind if there is a benefit to you and not just a benefit to other people. What does that say about you, though? Our benefits are inextricable. It's benefit enough that I can be with you on land or water. No saving needs to happen. In water, we each look a little different because we're both affected by the same element. The journey out of ignorance takes us into — forgive the mushy term — self-discovery and into a deeper empathetic relation to the prevailing issues of our time.

I don't know where the scenario of my plunging into the ocean and needing to swim to safety came from. It is estimated that at least two million Black people died while crossing the Atlantic ocean on slave ships. Some jumped, choosing to drown rather than to be enslaved.


From Disorientation: Being Black in the World by Ian Williams. Published by Random House Canada, an imprint of Penguin Random House Canada. Copyright © 2021 Ian Williams. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.


For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

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