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The Skin We’re In: A Year of Black Resistance and Power

by Desmond Cole

It is not an exaggeration to say that Desmond Cole’s book should be taught in classrooms, roiling in the minds of the next generation, lauded in social justice movements. It’s a striking, searing, perspective-shifting book that draws attention to the injustices faced by Black Canadians on a daily basis.

Cole chronicles struggles against racism over the course of a single year – 2017 – with each month contributing to a comprehensively stark picture of the Black experience in Canada. It starts on New Year’s Eve 2016, when Toronto police Tasered Black artist John Samuels, and ends in December 2017 with the battle to cancel the deportation Somalian refugee Abdoul Abdi. Cole highlights incidents of various “scales” – some that garnered widespread media attention and controversy, others that did not; some affecting whole groups of people and some a single family. Regardless, it is the nature of racial injustice that it inevitably impacts and disenfranchises entire communities of colour.

The Skin We’re In is an impressive feat of historical and contemporary investigative research. It contains histories of Canada not typically seen in textbooks or in broader online discourse. The text will be eye-opening for many Canadians who take satisfaction in overlooking Canada’s racist, settler-colonial past, proudly deeming it “not as bad” as the U.S. It will also be eye-opening to those who are aware of this and have worked against injustice in their everyday lives but don’t realize just how deep systemic inequality runs.

The courage needed to steadfastly pursue the twin callings of journalism and activism are deeply embedded in Cole’s life and work. His prose contains the grace, clarity, caution, and cadence of someone familiar with speaking up and standing tall. He seamlessly integrates historical and theoretical material with analyses of recent events, making the text informative and incisive without sacrificing emotional resonance.

While Cole does delve into the issue that brought him to greatest prominence – the carding of mostly marginalized peoples by Toronto police that led to a 2015 cover story in Toronto Life magazine – he also gives space to issues affecting other intersectional communities.

Cole dedicates significant space to a discussion of racism within Pride, with a special focus on Black Lives Matter Toronto calling out Pride’s anti-Black racism in the wake of interrupting the parade in 2016 and demanding that police floats be removed (among other requests). Black Lives Matter was and is working to expose systemic discrimination; its leadership, Cole notes, consists mostly of Black women and Black queer and trans people, who regularly advocate for the needs of intersecting populations within Black communities. Cole writes about Toronto’s history of homophobia and transphobia, and the overwhelming whiteness within queer activism. He points out growing corporate interference within Pride, and illustrates how the organization effectively shut out racial minorities within queer communities.

Cole also writes about the Canada 150 activities in 2017, focusing on the settler-colonial insistence on celebration amid continued systemic racism and erasure of Indigenous peoples and their rights. He gives space for important work done by the Idle No More movement and the water and land protectors at Parliament Hill in July 2017. Cole also focuses on groups speaking out about the thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in the country, and the various ways police and RCMP refused to cooperate with the inquiry or hold their officers accountable. Importantly, Cole advocates for calling this mass disappearance what it is: genocide.

In one of the book’s most salient sections, Cole speaks about the assault of Dafonte Miller, which he calls “the clearest publicly known illustration of systemic racism and corruption in modern Canadian policing.” Cole lays out the ways in which regulations were broken (for instance, oversight bodies not being informed of Miller’s attack) and how key information was covered up. It is rare that encounters between police and marginalized peoples – even those ending in injury or death – result in criminal charges being laid against an officer. Miller’s attackers were charged with aggravated assault; the court case began in early November 2019.

Consistent in The Skin We’re In is evidence of state violence against communities of colour, borne out equally through action and inaction. The book makes clear that injustices and systemic inequalities Black Canadians face most palpably appear as increased police violence and presence in Black lives and livelihoods, including the insidious ways police protect their own, thereby entrenching ongoing violence. Also to blame is the mainstream media’s lack of attention to issues pertaining to Black people in Canada, which, in turn, creates and perpetuates ignorance among the white “dominator culture.” It is exactly this “dominator culture” that Cole’s book will hopefully agitate, awaken, and move.

While The Skin We’re In mostly serves as an explorative and educative text, it also includes interjections of Cole’s personal experiences – moments of peace, or brief observations about the city, snippets of his professional writing journey, reflections on his childhood and how he loves to stop and photograph flowers and bees. Rather than appearing interruptive, these personal sections serve to ground the book. Often, the first-person voice interjects to disrupt an otherwise observant, somewhat scholarly, but always accessible, tone, thereby reminding the reader who is speaking, and whose voices really matter in these conversations.

The book represents a solid introduction to themes of white supremacy, imperialism and power, anti-Black racism, and Cole’s own life and values; however, there is little in the way of a conclusion, no attempt to take down what has been set up. But perhaps this is purposeful. Black people do not always have time to pause in the vicinity of violence. As Cole powerfully illustrates, Black pain – and the fight against it – does not always have a tidy, smooth, palatable ending.