The Current·Q & A

Marching in the streets isn't the only way to challenge racism, author says

Ian Williams wants people to know that protesting in the streets isn’t the only way to combat racism. While he says that’s important, people can still make a valuable contribution by having meaningful conversations about race. 

Ian Williams says protesting has its place, but not everyone is able to share their experience that way

Ian Williams says people can make a meaningful contribution through conversations about race. (Random House Canada, Justin Morris)

Read Story Transcript

Ian Williams wants people to know that protesting in the streets isn't the only way to combat racism. 

While the author and poet says that's important, he says people who don't feel comfortable demonstrating can still make a valuable contribution by having meaningful conversations about race. 

It's one of the topics Williams tackles in his new book of essays, Disorientation: Being Black in the World. Williams also  won the 2019 Giller Prize for his book Reproduction.

He spoke with the CBC's Matt Galloway on The Current about the book. Here's part of that conversation:

You say in this book that you think about race every day, but you rarely externalized those thoughts until now. Tell me more about that. I mean, what were you reluctant of in terms of speaking openly about race in a way that you do in this book? 

So I think mostly we think that the fear of talking about race is for white people, right, who face some very serious repercussions for saying the wrong thing, having the wrong positions, that if they are public figures, that can easily be cancelled.

But I think the fear is different for everybody but still present. And for Black folks, the fear is being trouble, being an instigator, of bringing up something that might be invisible to other people, of making a big deal over things that people are saying are just part of life. 

And so there are different kinds of fears that I was sort of concerned about entering that space of being misunderstood. 

What are the expectations of people like you? 

Well, there are a couple, right? On one hand, there's the expectation to be good. And to be good often means not to disturb, or not to agitate, or not to rock the boat.

And the other expectation would be something like the complete opposite, to be extremely vocal, to be outraged, to be militant. And those two things are held in kind of opposition, as if they can't coexist together. 

Williams celebrates winning the 2019 Giller Prize for his book Reproduction at a gala ceremony in Toronto. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

But what if to be good is in fact to be morally disturbed and outraged by these things and to find the right opportunities to speak about them, and also to be considerate of the people listening so that my anger isn't just spread like a garden hose, but my anger actually finds the right target and the right moments to be articulated. 

So you are very much a public person. Did you feel the expectation was to be righteous? I mean, in the book you say 'I care about race, but I don't march in the streets with homemade signs.' Do people expect you to do that? 

I think to some degree, yes. And I think there are people who do it better than me. And part of the point of the book is that there are other ways of engaging the subjects of race apart from the visible, public way that we see.

I think there are people who do it really brilliantly and should be commended, and we need those people to march in the streets and to be at the forefront of it. 

But then there are other people who, by force of personality or temperament or whatever, take a different kind of approach to this, which is a little bit more private, more like a salon and a concert hall, right? And more into these one-on-one conversations.

Williams wrote the collection of essays as his way of talking about racism. (Random House Canada)

[You say] that people in some ways need to be considerate as well of who the audience is. Tell me more about that? 

It's so easy to focus on expressing what I feel and what I think the focus is on getting the feeling out of me. But that can fall on deaf ears if there's no awareness of the person that I'm speaking to. 

I actually think compassion as a ruling virtue is actually a good one. Compassion means that even in my outrage, I am still able to bear in mind the feelings of the other person and not to do unnecessary damage. 

I think there are lots of people, like white people, who have difficulty with the subject and won't even approach the subject because they're expecting hostility from people of colour. And our anger is not necessarily directed to that particular person that we're speaking to, right? 

It's directed towards a system that they might have complicit participation in, but it's not because of that individual person. All these social relations are complex and we have to not lose the nuance of it as we're talking about difficult things. 

You talk about whiteness as an institution. What do you mean by that? 

So I try to make this distinction in that chapter on whiteness between whiteness and white people, whiteness as a kind of system and white people. 

But by whiteness, as an institution, I mean, this is the kind of system that we're trapped in, the kind of system that controls everything from how housing prices work here to my interactions at the FreshCo.

Williams says it's important to have compassion for others, even when frustrated with their behavior. (Justin Morris)

What would change if white people were to stop taking offence, as you say, and acknowledge the existence of whiteness, but also the impact of whiteness on other people? 

That would require some real self-reflection or some real introspection there. But it would mean that they would bring to these conversations a kind of sophistication and a kind of, like, pre-work that Black people have been doing. 

If white people did their digging and did their work and said, yeah, here are the advantages I've had, and I'm aware of how easy I have this versus how this Black woman does not have it easy. And they can have those conversations, not just with people of colour, but amongst themselves. 

Written by Philip Drost. Produced by Idella Sturino. Q&A edited for length and clarity.


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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