Non-Fiction, Reviews

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

Image description: The book resting in the middle of a landscape-facing notebook, with purple, pink, blue, and green coloured pens pointing towards the book. On the left side of the book, the words “Black lives MATTER!” “LGBTQIA+ lives MATTER!” “Racialized lives MATTER” AND “People with DisAbilities MATTER” are written in coloured pen. On the right side of the book, the phrase “Pay Attention” is written in corresponding colours.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

This idea that Canada’s racial injustices are not as bad as they could be, this notion of Slavery Lite, of Racism Lite, of what my friend calls the “toy version of racism” is a very Canadian way of saying: remember what we could do to you if we wanted to. Passive-aggressive racism is central to Canada’s national mythology and identity.

**There are minor spoilers in the “Content Warnings” and “Review” portions of this post.**

Published: January, 2020
Genre: Non-Fiction
Representation: Black, Indigenous, & People of Colour (BIPOC), Refugees, LGBT+, Folks with DisAbilities
Content Warning: Systemic/institutional racism, lack of judicial justice and accountability, police brutality (assault, assault with a weapon, assault a minor, gun violence, raids, slurs, murder, racial discrimination, ableism), white supremacy, discrimination (around race, disAbilities, and mental health), media bias, carding/racial profiling, “colourblindness,” torture (by Canadian officials), sexual assault (by Canadian officials).

Summary

A bracing, provocative, and perspective-shifting book from one of Canada’s most celebrated and uncompromising writers, Desmond Cole. The Skin We’re In will spark a national conversation, influence policy, and inspire activists.

In his 2015 cover story for Toronto Life magazine, Desmond Cole exposed the racist actions of the Toronto police force, detailing the dozens of times he had been stopped and interrogated under the controversial practice of carding. The story quickly came to national prominence, shaking the country to its core and catapulting its author into the public sphere. Cole used his newfound profile to draw insistent, unyielding attention to the injustices faced by Black Canadians on a daily basis.

Both Cole’s activism and journalism find vibrant expression in his first book, The Skin We’re In. Puncturing the bubble of Canadian smugness and naive assumptions of a post-racial nation, Cole chronicles just one year—2017—in the struggle against racism in this country.

The year also witnessed the profound personal and professional ramifications of Desmond Cole’s unwavering determination to combat injustice.

Month-by-month, Cole creates a comprehensive picture of entrenched, systemic inequality. Urgent, controversial, and unsparingly honest, The Skin We’re In is destined to become a vital text for anti-racist and social justice movements in Canada, as well as a potent antidote to the all-too-present complacency of many white Canadians.

— summary (abridged) taken from Goodreads

Review

Calling all Canadians! Are you under the impression that “we’re not as bad as the United States” when it comes to racism and oppression? Or do you think that we are past all that, and it is merely part of our history? Or maybe you’re entirely unaware of everyday racism and injustices in this country, and you’re looking for a place to start learning.  Pick up this book and buckle in. 

First, about the author. Desmond Cole is a phenomenal, passionate, and active fighter against injustice. As an activist, he is one person I tend to keep my eye on and admire greatly. If you haven’t already heard of him or what he does, do yourself a favour and check out some of his journalism and talks. I think you’ll find yourself learning a lot, while simultaneously checking your assumptions and being emboldened by his work.

This book is thoroughly researched and impressively recounted. Structured as a month-by-month account of racism and Black activism (including his own), mostly focused on the Greater Toronto Area, is a stark and undeniable challenge of the myth that Canada is diverse, inclusive, and without systemic racism. While this book focuses mostly on anti-Black racism, it does also discuss anti-Indigenous racism as well as how racism affects other racialized folks. Cole doesn’t just focus on racism in one specific regard; rather, he discusses various manifestations of racial injustices including schools, policing, and the intersectionality with Pride and LGBTQIATS+ identities. It reinforces the idea that our system was deliberately built with ingrained racist attitudes and white supremacy, which allow for the horrible failings of justice in practice. Cole calls attention to the occurrences that our media and law enforcement would warp or hide from us, for the sake of preserving image and facilitating further violence. He even outlines some very specific ways in which the media and legal system have failed us entirely. I would argue that this book is instrumental in perspective-shifting, because of the methodical and factual documentation of real events, infused with Cole’s own beliefs, ideas, and activism. There is no way to truly deny the truth of systemic and social racism after reading this book; and if you think you have an argument, I would urge you to give it another read. 

As a person of colour, this kind of methodical, intentional journalism and social commentary was incredibly validating to see on paper. Let me clarify: I do not, in any way, feel comforted by this documentation of injustices. Reading this book put me through a lot of emotions, including anger, frustration, devastation, hopelessness, and indignation. The feeling of validation comes living in a society as a racialized person, and constantly hearing the narrative of a non-racist Canada being reinforced by people around me. Hearing things like “things are not as bad up here as it is in the United States,” or “racism is a thing of the past in Canada,” or “there is no such thing as racism here,” throughout my life has been invalidating, exhausting, and infuriating. Cole’s work firmly rejects these notions, and opens a door for readers to do their own further research, and potentially acknowledge their own willful blindness, or the privilege that allowed them to be blind to the injustices that racialized people experience in this country. I have unsurprisingly experienced such racism and fought it in my own activism, just to be met with rude cynicism and a denial of my experiences. I can now, in good faith, pass this book around silently when I hear such notions. 

‘Bad things happened’ is a sentence without an actor. […] It’s convenient not to have to name who did what, especially if we really don’t know or don’t want to know.

– Desmond Cole; “The Skin We’re In: A Year of Black Resistance and Power.”

I also loved that the focus of this book, as much as it was to shine a light on racism at every level, also emphasized solidarity and activism in the BIPOC community. It documents the active resistance that is occurring everyday, at risk of our own safety, as we fight for true equality. It doesn’t necessarily give someone like me hope, per se, because I have been actively part of this fight and have found it to be exhausting and sometimes without hope. But it does give testament to the strength of the community, and show the ways in which activism does work (for all you folks who doubt the power of activism, or for activists like me who sometimes feel like it isn’t enough), even as the difficulties and barriers of fighting for justice are highlighted. 

I want to end this with a note. Reading this book does not mean your learning process or anti-racism/anti-oppression work is over. There is so much that you may not know, and as Cole acknowledges himself, this book in now way encompasses all of the examples or problems that we’re facing in this country. Other racialized folks, including the Indigenous population, deal with so many terrible injustices that I believe most people are unaware of or choose to ignore. For recommendations on more anti-racism/anti-oppression books, check out our post for Indigenous History Month (last month), and keep an eye on our blog for more reviews. And if you want more RIGHT NOW, then keep reading for a quick list with Canadian non-fiction reads on the topic of anti-Black racism. 


The following is a list of books that I’ve come across by Black Canadians. Please don’t forget to do your own research. There is more out there, and I haven’t even included memoirs or biographies. If you have any Canadian recommendations that we haven’t mentioned, leave us a comment!

Click on the book titles for more information on them, and the author names to be forwarded to their respective websites or social media (if they have them).

1 thought on “The Skin We’re In: A Year of Black Resistance and Power by Desmond Cole”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s