Review of The Skin We’re In: A Year of Black Resistance and Power by Desmond Cole
The Skin We’re In: A Year of Black Resistance and Power
by Desmond Cole
Somehow amidst all the well-deserved hype for The Skin We’re In, I missed hearing about its structure! This is Not Your Typical political memoir in that Desmond Cole has chosen a very deliberate structure: each chapter is a month in 2017 (with a coda for January 2018). He uses an event from each month of that year as a launching point for discussing issues of anti-Black racism and social justice in Canada. In this way, Cole stays focused and on-message while also making it very clear that anti-Black racism is not an anomaly in Canada; it’s the rule. Not a month can go by without police officers killing a Black man, immigration officials trying to deport a Black person, or a debate happening about whether or not Black Lives Matter Toronto should be “allowed” a float at the Toronto Pride Parade.
This is the most important thing to know about this book, I think: although Cole discusses his personal experiences, this is a book about structural injustice and inequity. If it seems like so many chapters focus on the police, that’s on purpose. Cole is not here to call out every random racist incident he and Black people experience from white people on the street. He’s here to point out that the systems in our society are designed to prop up white supremacy. And the policing system, as you might know if you’ve read Policing Black Lives or listened to part 1 and part 2 of The Secret Life of Canada’s wonderful educational podcasts on the origins of the Mounties. Policing in Canada has always been about controlling the bodies and curtailing the livelihoods of racialized people.
Now, of course, when you read and listen to those resources, you might think, “But surely that’s in the past? Surely Canada is better now?” This is where The Skin We’re In becomes so crucial. Cole is not discussing historical trends here. He foregrounds things that have happened very recently, many of them in Toronto or its surrounding cities (I’m in Thunder Bay—all of southern Ontario is basically the GTA to me, ok? Don’t @ me), which is one of the most diverse regions of the country. The point is that you might have missed some of these, of course, but if you’ve missed all of them, then you haven’t been watching closely enough. Anti-Black racism exists in Canada, and Cole is here to tell you all about it.
I could talk about every chapter, but then we would be here for a long time when really you should just be reading this book. So let me highlight 2 in particular because they are the intersection of law enforcement and education, and I am a teacher.
In February, “zero tolerance,” Cole writes:
White supremacy is always keeping score. The math is simple, as is the assumption of cause and effect: Black people get caught by the police so often because we break the law so often. Dominator culture tells Black folks that we not only bring this pain upon ourselves, but that we’re so irresponsible we blame our suffering on someone else, jealously landing on white people.
This chapter is about the fallout around a Peel Regional Police officer handcuffing a 6-year-old Black girl at a Peel District School Board school in September 2016. Cole explores how the media covers the investigation and the girl’s mother. He shows us (white people) how our desire to see the police as forces of good often means we need to justify their actions as a matter of course. If the officer handcuffed this girl, she must have done something wrong. He wouldn’t have handcuffed her otherwise. (This whole situation reminds me of how, last year, Vancouver Police responded to a call from Bank of Montreal and handcuffed a Heiltsuk man and his granddaughter because the bank was suspicious about their desire to open a bank account.) And if we do eventually admit that the victim didn’t do anything to deserve this mistreatment, we write it off as a single “bad apple” of a cop.
The reality, Cole argues, is this incident goes deeper than a single police officer making a bad decision. In the same chapter, he chronicles the curious story of Nancy Elgie. Elgie eventually resigned from the York Region District School Board after uttering the N-word in reference to a Black mother who attended a school board meeting. I say eventually, because it took a lot of back-and-forth in the media, with Elgie’s family rallying behind her with an increasingly convoluted series of medical excuses, before Elgie finally resigned. Cole presents this story as a direct contrast to the story of the 6-year-old Black girl. The actions of our state and our media are disproportionately harsh when dealing with racialized people; white people, on the other hand, often get a pass, even when we say and do racist shit. This isn’t merely white supremacy. This is structural white supremacy in action.
By the way, if you’re concerned that Cole might be too polemical based on my presentation of these chapters, don't worry. He comes equipped with evidence, with statistics, and he mentions more than once that everything he is saying has already been studied to death. We do not need more studies, more reports, more surveys. We need action.
That’s why the November chapter, “community policing” grabbed my attention too. Cole discusses how the Toronto District School Board finally, after much campaigning on the part of activists, voted to end the controversial School Resource Officer program that placed a police officer in many TDSB schools. I remember, growing up in Thunder Bay, seeing a police constable occasionally at our school, being all friendly. It never bothered me. But then again, I was white. Something I have learned over the years is that whiteness doesn’t just exempt me from mistreatment; it often isolates me from even seeing that mistreatment being visited upon racialized people. And maybe that means I should do more listening to racialized people instead of assuming their experience must much my own.
This chapter is full of data, but it’s also full of stories. Cole collects experiences of many Black people, youth and adults recalling their treatment by community police officers as youth. There is a common theme, of course: Black youth are treated with suspicion, distrust. They are made to feel like criminals. Police officers intimidate them on purpose. This lays the groundwork for what ends up being a cycle of harassment, including carding, which Cole discusses in another chapter.
When you hear these stories, you have to make a choice. Either you invoke a hell of a lot of cognitive dissonance and think that all of these Black people are lying or mistaken … or you accept that your personal experience of the police is not, perhaps, the universal experience.
That’s part of the power of The Skin We’re In. With the passion and integrity of a journalist, Cole dredges up all the reports and statistics you’ll want as “impartial” evidence of injustice. With the devotion and dedication of an activist, he brings to light the stories of people whose voices we don’t hear—or sometimes refuse to hear. This is a book that demands we go into our lives with an awareness of history and context. For me as an educator, that means understanding how the lessons I teach, the jokes I make in my classroom banter, the way I assess my students, might be insensitive or even outright racist—not as a result of anything deliberate on my part, but simply because I didn’t think critically enough about how I am approaching subjects, using resources, or addressing skills with my students. Admitting that you are part of a white supremacist system does not mean that you yourself are a bad person. But it means you have a responsibility to recognize how being steeped in that system means you can sometimes uphold it, even without meaning to do so.
The other powerful aspect to The Skin We’re In is summed up by its subtitle: A Year of Black Resistance and Power. These are vital words. Cole wants us to understand that Black people are fighting against white supremacy, and that the sparse victories he includes in these books are the result of Black activists on the ground, doing the work. Black people mobilized to oppose the School Resource Officer program. Black people mobilized to prevent the deportation of Beverley Braham, of Abdoul Abdi. Change is and will continue to be in the wind.
The question Cole asks us is simple: are we part of this change, or are we, through action or inaction, standing in its way?