Canada likes to think it’s past the whole nasty business of race, and takes some satisfaction in tut-tutting quietly to itself when the subject of racism in other parts of the world comes up. But Desmond Cole’s piercing new book, The Skin We’re In: A Year of Black Resistance and Power, wants to show this complacency to be a mask for fundamental patterns of racist abuse throughout the country. The renowned Toronto journalist and activist has chosen a single calendar year, 2017, and structured the book’s chapters as a month-by-month account, reflecting on everything from the case of Abdirahman Abdi, a mentally ill man who died after being arrested by Ottawa police, to Cole’s own sudden and terrifying encounters with officers demanding his identification as he was going about his day. Each incident adds to an image of fear, anger, and hopelessness created by injustices embedded in Canada’s systems of immigration, education, policing, and law.
Cole spoke with the Straight in a recent phone interview. He’ll discuss The Skin We’re In at an upcoming Vancouver Writers Fest event, set for Wednesday (February 19) in the Vancouver Public Library’s Alice MacKay Room. See the festival's website for details.
Georgia Straight: A main theme of The Skin We’re In is a refusal by mainstream white society in Canada to recognize the country’s record of racist violence. Does this make the problem even harder to combat than it would be in other countries where it’s more widely recognized—harder than, say, in the U.S.?
Desmond Cole: I think it’s a different struggle. I don’t know if it’s harder or easier to combat. But I know definitely that the nature of it is fundamentally different, because what we are always trying to do in Canada is to defer the conversation and to kind of sidestep the conversation. It’s a denial tactic.…I guess what I would say to people is, if they look at the stories that are contained in this book—some of the stories that made the media because they were just so sensational in their violence or their level of racism: a six-year-old being handcuffed inside of her classroom in Mississauga; thousands of black people being arrested as they cross the border from the United States, that apparently horrific place, into our country; Dafonte Miller being attacked by an off-duty police officer and his brother—did any of those overtly racist stories produce any kind of fundamental change or awakening in the Canadian public? No, they did not.
GS: As you point out in the book, many parts of the corporate and official sectors have taken up the language of diversity and inclusion with apparent ease. What does that say about this kind of public gesture?
DC: Well, I think that white supremacy is an extremely adaptive force and that’s why it has survived for hundreds of years. And the flavour in our time is to say “Oh no no, I’m right here with you. I want to include you. I wouldn’t like to give up the power to include. But you seem nice enough. Let’s be friends. Let’s have a party, let’s hang out. I want to throw the party, I want to control all the money that gets spent at the party, but you can come!” That’s what we seem to be on in this particular time. So the white-settler state says, “Well, we allowed you to come here from Syria or from Afghanistan or from Sierra Leone”—as my parents did—“so how can we really be so bad? But, of course, if we decide tomorrow…that you are no longer invited to the party, well, that’s just the way things go. Surely you understand.” So there’s something really sinister about these notions of inclusion, diversity, and multiculturalism, because those are stand-in words for notions of segregation, cooptation, tokenism….We will have our token celebrations, we will put token people in certain positions of power, and we will do that explicitly to shut up the systemic criticism.
GS: You were stopped and checked on the street by a Vancouver police officer during a visit here in November 2018. Shortly afterward, you received a phone call from Mayor Kennedy Stewart, in which you demanded an end to this practice in the city. Did you receive any follow-up on that?
DC: Nope. And I tried to make it really clear at the time that I didn’t solicit that call from the mayor, and that, really, the fact that he was calling me, but not every other single person that that happens to in his city, is quite telling. What was so special about me that I needed a phone call? Well, it was embarrassing because I have a platform. So for those black and Indigenous people who are stopped every day, who don’t have a platform, there’s no sense of urgency, there’s no sense of accountability or redress. Now, nothing happened to the officer who profiled me and threatened to handcuff me and take me to the police station—nothing happened to him. So the mayor’s call was quite empty. But he was desperate to look like he was doing something. And if we go back to what I was saying before about tokenism, that’s the purpose of that phone call. It’s to say “This one black person who you all know—well, I would find it really unacceptable if he were made uncomfortable or alienated in our city. So I’m going to, very publicly and in front of all of you, reach out.” He was telling the media he wanted to talk to me before he called me, right? I mean, it’s despicable.…And the incident that happened more recently, with the Indigenous man and his 12-year-old granddaughter being handcuffed in the bank—I think that that just shows how little Vancouver has changed since my incident.
GS: Is it frustrating to be both the target of racism and also an expected source of solutions to it, as when people from the mainstream turn to you and ask what we should do?
DC: I sometimes think of this as like a white person walking by a river, seeing a black person flailing and barely treading water, and shouting out to them, “How can I be an ally to you?” You know? It’s frustrating. And I think that what’s behind that, again, is fear. White supremacy, one of its main products, for the people who experience it and from those who benefit from it, is fear. And white people are afraid to challenge the power structures that benefit them above other people. The thing about being black is, I can relate to people being afraid of the white-supremacist power structure—I know, I experience it every day. So if challenging power makes people afraid, I understand. But there are no shortcuts here. There’s no way to defend somebody without potentially putting yourself at risk. Right? And people have to be mature enough, I guess, to accept that responsibility, rather than endlessly asking us how they can help. The way to help has actually been laid out a thousand times throughout history. It’s obvious, and it’s really about engaging in solidarity and support for many of the people who are already doing it. But I think that that makes people scared, and they must challenge that fear. I did an interview the other day and somebody suggested that I’m fearless. I’m not. Being able to act in spite of your fear is what more of us need to be able to develop.
GS: In the middle of The Skin We’re In, there’s a short chapter titled “deep breath (may)” that focuses on experiences of the beauty of nature you had during that month. The contrast is sudden and powerful. Why was it important to you to include it?
DC: The first four chapters of that book were extremely challenging to write…really weighed on my spirit very, very heavily. And I got scared after the following chapter, when the weight was still on my shoulders. I thought, “Maybe I can’t finish this book.”
GS: Just the mental toll of it?
DC: Yes, the mental and emotional and spiritual weight of talking about what happens to us as black people. And I thought, “I need a break from this.” And if anything, that chapter was me as a writer and as a human being giving myself permission to take a break. You know? And saying, “If you feel completely overwhelmed with what you’re doing right now, that is completely all right. Allow yourself to feel it.” And what came out of that was going back to May of 2017, looking through notes, looking through tweets, and looking through journals, and being like, “What was I doing back then?” and realizing I had this really beautiful set of experiences with my friends that I was revelling in. If I go through my camera from that time, it’s just like: winter’s ending, winter’s ending, winter’s ending—and then May comes, late April, and it’s just flowers. Every picture is just flowers, and then the magnolia trees bloom in my neighbourhood in High Park. And I’m just like, “Thank you, God, that we’re alive! Thank you for some relief.” And that’s what I wanted to communicate through that chapter: my sense of gratitude that our life is also appreciating beauty, appreciating our friends, appreciating really simple things in life, and using that as fuel to carry on. I think we can all relate to that.