The Sensationalized Somali: Anti-blackness and Islamophobia in Toronto’s Media Blog

Recently, Vice released its documentary about Toronto’s Somali communities in Dixon. Titled “This is Dixon,” the documentary attempts to find out if a gang called the “Dixon City Bloods” exists in the neighbourhood. Narrator Suroosh Alvi interviews those living in Dixon, as well as outside reporters, lawyers, and police officers. Why does a documentary that attempts to portray Dixon, centre, begin, and end with the question of a gang that may or may not exist? This documentary (which is not the first of it’s kind) is an example of irresponsible, Islamophobic and anti-Black journalism that assumes Somalis are always-already guilty. To combat the very dangerous portrayal of Somalis put forth by Vice, a group of activists under the “This is NOT Dixon Collective” have employed the hashtags #shameonvice and #thatsNOTdixon to take Vice Media to task for their blatant anti-Blackness and Islamophobia.

A documentary like “This is Dixon” is particularly troubling when you consider the political climate in Toronto- one that is at once Islamophobic and anti-Black, making Somalis particularly vulnerable to both forms of violence. Consider, for instance, last year’s introduction of Bill C-51 – the “Anti-Terrorism Act” that expanded the powers of the state to monitor and arrest those suspected of being involved with terrorism, with little oversight. To promote this act, the Conservative government used sensationalist images of Al-Shabaab to garner support. Such a bill made Somalis- already hypervisible and heavily watched by virtue of our Blackness- even more vulnerable because of this post-9/11 construction of Somalis as terrorists. It was precisely the construction of Somali-as-terrorist that helped to pass the bill, as well as justify the imperial violence and drone strikes that displace millions in Somalia, when one considers Canada’s involvement with NATO.

The documentary also came out at a time when there is a lot of conversation about police brutality specifically targeting Black populations- for instance Black Lives Matter Toronto has been at the forefront of holding police accountable for racist carding practices and police murders that place black life in danger. Indeed, a common theme in the documentary was the perpetual presence of police in Dixon- especially after the Project Traveller police raid in Dixon. The introduction of the Somali Liaison Unit (the name for the increased police presence within Dixon) resulted in heightened police surveillance, as well as the stopping and questioning of mostly young Black men who can no longer freely move within their own community. It seems that we are always being watched by the state, our Blackness a hypervisible marker. And this anti-Black regulation of how, when, and where Somali bodies can move extends beyond Dixon, towards the very borders of the Canadian nation-state itself. Indeed, we see this regulation echoed by the larger state’s xenophobic and Islamophobic policies hidden under the guise of “anti-terrorism.” For instance, Canada Border Services Agency and immigration policies like Bill C-24 (which can strip citizenship of anyone of anyone thought to be involved in terrorism), put Somali communities- and especially those with precarious immigration status – at increased risk of interrogation, deportation, and immigration detention. Just as recently as July 15, the Special Investigations Unit (Ontario’s police watchdog) cleared the police in all charges related to the death of Abdurahman Ibrahim Hassan, while he was held indefinitely in immigration detention.

It is within this pre-existing context of narratives that criminalize black and Muslim communities, that this documentary was created. This was why a documentary called “This is Dixon” sought to portray Dixon in no less than sensationalist terms that play to anti-black and Islamophobic stereotypes of Somalis as always-already guilty. By posing the question of whether or not an organized gang exists in Dixon, Vice has already presumed the guilt of Dixon, and Somali communities at large. This presumed guilt is part and parcel of Canadian state and foreign policy that also views the Somali body as one that can only be guilty (guilty of terrorism, guilty of being black). Ultimately, Islamophobic and anti-black media representation as found in documentaries like “This is Dixon,” directly contribute to the structural violence that puts Somali lives- black, Muslim lives- at risk.

“The Sensationalized Somali: Anti-blackness and Islamophobia in Toronto’s Media” is an adaptation of the writer’s introduction to a panel on Somalis living at the intersections of anti-Blackness and Islamophobia, presented at the Black Futures Now Conference held at York University on July 16, 2016.

M. Mohamed is a writer and artist interested in social and collective memories of colonialism, diasporic nostalgia, and black liberation.

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