The last time he was in Vancouver, journalist and activist Desmond Cole was stopped by a police officer on his way to Stanley Park.
In town to give a talk about anti-Black racism in Canada, Cole wasn’t the least bit surprised. In his 2015 Toronto Life article “The Skin I’m In,” he describes how he’s been stopped by police more than 50 times in Canada.
The article exhaustively explored how the practice and legacy of carding — asking for identification from a person even when not suspected of a crime — disproportionately affects racialized folk, especially Black and Indigenous peoples.
Since then Cole has continued to document the banal horror and absurdity of anti-Black racism and white supremacy in Canada. In his new book The Skin We’re In: A Year of Black Resistance and Power, he chronicles one whole year of it.
Cole has a simple definition for white supremacy: “A system of power that seeks to benefit white people above all others.”
He illustrates it in the book through stories: the man at risk of deportation even though he has lived in government care for most of his life. The beating of a 19-year-old by an off-duty police officer and his brother. The too many “fatal civilian encounters” portrayed as inevitable and justified. The shackling of a six-year-old girl in her public school “for her safety.”
Ultimately, The Skin We’re In shows how the racial flares in the blue-sky dream of polite Canadian society — the slips of the mask — aren’t at all accidental but rather a feature of a system designed to discipline and surveil Black people.
For Cole, white supremacy is an insatiable, elusive, all-encompassing force that thrives on a denial of its existence and coalesces at every point in defence of itself. And it is absolutely imperative to identify this system for what it is and call it by its name.
When he refused to give his name to the officer that stopped him in Vancouver, Cole tells me, the officer threatened to get out of his car and arrest him. The outcome could have been far worse.
“It is not safe for us to do that as Black people. We can lose our lives for resisting,” he said. “And that — that’s why we have to fight back.”
The stories told in The Skin We’re In sometimes feel like a sick joke that’s missing a punchline. But alongside the absurdity and darkness are the brave people resisting and supporting, in ways both big and small. It’s a beauty that’s illustrated by the last day of Cole’s eventful visit to Vancouver.
“Two Black folks that I had met during my trip actually did take me to Stanley Park the morning before I flew out of Vancouver, and it was truly magical,” Cole said. “That was people showing love and care and support after something really awful happened.”
The writing of The Skin We’re In followed a two-year stint as a columnist at the Toronto Star. But Cole quit that gig in May 2017 after his boss told him, in a private meeting, that his public activism against carding crossed journalistic lines.
“If I must choose between a newspaper column and the actions I must take to liberate myself and my community, I choose activism in the service of Black liberation,” Cole wrote in a blog post at the time.
Cole returns to Vancouver this week for a stop on his book tour Wednesday. As he scrambled to get to the Toronto launch party for his book — “I’m woefully unprepared to leave the house and that’s just too bad” — Cole talked to The Tyee about his new book, Canada’s unique brand of racism and white supremacy, and the question of whether journalism and activism can coexist.
This interview was lightly edited for clarity and length.
The Tyee: Why did you decide to write this book?
Desmond Cole: I see so little journalism about our experiences as Black people that truly comes from a real place. The majority of journalism in Canada that has anything to do with race, particularly anti-Black racism, is trivializing in its nature. Most journalism in Canada asks whether racism exists, even though everyone knows damn well. I just didn’t want to see that anymore without having a chance to contribute something bigger myself. I wanted our stories told honestly and unapologetically. And many of the stories that I examine in the book are things that I have written about elsewhere, but I never had the depth, I never had the space to give context.
The choice of having one year, 2017, and focusing just on that was arbitrary in some sense. I could have picked any other time, but what’s universal for me is the themes that would come up no matter what year we were talking about. The themes of Black dispossession because of policing, because of child welfare, because of a number of different institutions and systems that are always taking from Black people… you would see that any year that you explored Black life in Canada. However, you would also see, in any year, the way people fight back.
I wanted to give context to things like that, because our media again tends to fool people by thinking that these issues are new, that if there are cruelties or harms done to Black people, that they are accidental. And I think that giving the context and the history of our country makes it clear that of course that’s not true. That these things are not accidental; they’re actually part of how Canada is a country.
Was there a point in the book that stuck out to you, that you thought was very important for people to read?
One thing that my editor and I ended up talking about was the notion of intention as a feature or a way of understanding racism and white supremacy. I think sometimes if Black people tell our stories, the initial reaction of white audiences is to feel somewhat exposed, to feel maybe targeted. There’s a finger pointing at them, maybe they feel like they’re being blamed for something.
There were many times in the book where we would have conversations like, “Are we trying to portray a certain person’s intentions in this moment? Are we trying to get into the head of a person who’s doing a certain kind of action?” And often the resolution to these kinds of conversations was that, in my view, those things don’t actually really matter so much. People’s intentions when they’re causing harm are not more important than the harm itself. So, we just talk about the harm.
That was definitely a theme that came up over and over again in the book, that racism is not about people’s intentions. Racism is about the impact and the hurt of their actions. Intentions do not matter. And that’s a hard one for people, because they cling to being good as a way of saying “I am not racist.” And my thing is, I don’t care if you’re racist. I care if you’re hurting me.
Yeah, there seems to be a distinction between intention and the action. There’s not really a functional difference for the people you hurt if you felt bad about it.
Yeah. White guilt and white fragility is a way of trying to shirk responsibility. In the second chapter, I write about an Ontario school trustee, Nancy Elgie, who refuses to take responsibility for calling a Black woman a n-----. She refuses to step down for three months, and all kinds of pressure had to be brought to bear before she resigned.
What did her children do? They argued that she had a long history of defending human rights. They argued that she never accepted racism in her house. I have no idea what any of these things have to do with calling a Black woman, at a public meeting, a n-----. But that’s what they did, right? And it was a distraction, quite frankly. And you know, I think that’s a very common strategy for people who don’t want to take accountability for their racism.
But that actually works on a societal level in the same way that it works at the individual level. As a society, Canada says, “But look at our image. Loved around the world, viewed as a multicultural haven. Look at all the immigrants and refugees that we take in. How dare you accuse us of racism? Look at all these other things. Don’t talk about the thing we just did, forget about that. Look at all these shiny things over here.” We stop talking about specific harms that Canada is doing to Black people, and we tell fairy tales about other things that make us feel good about Canada but that are irrelevant to the harm being done to Black folks. So that notion of intention versus impact is very important.
Several times in the book you draw connections between the struggles of Black people in Canada to the ongoing colonization and genocide of Indigenous peoples and call for solidarity between these groups. Could you elaborate?
What I see is that because white settlers wanted this land and they wanted to take it from Indigenous people, they had to create all kinds of institutions and structures that kill or disenfranchise Indigenous people. They created an Indian Act. They created these property laws that disenfranchise Indigenous people from their land. They created a pass law system, so that Indigenous peoples had to basically ask for a hall pass to walk their own lands. And if they didn’t have it, the government could then take further actions against them and their families. Those institutions in many respects were designed to disenfranchise Indigenous people. But all Black experience on the same territories with the same government includes the use of the same systems to hurt us.
People will try to waste our time arguing that the system doesn’t mean to do that. If you don’t mean to step on my foot, but you do it every day until my toes are broken, your intentions are meaningless. But of course, people who say that the system doesn’t mean to do it to Black people are in denial that the system was literally designed to take Indigenous children away from their parents, to make them lose their language, make them lose their culture. Those kinds of things, those kinds of outcomes, we cannot see them as being accidental. That would be really, really dangerous and irresponsible.
So we are in solidarity as Black and Indigenous peoples because the systems are made to disenfranchise us, and they’re working. We do have opportunities to struggle together, to see each other, to listen to each other, and to fight back together. When tent city happened here in Toronto and Black Lives Matter demonstrated outside of the police headquarters for 16 days, there were Indigenous demonstrators with them the entire time. So solidarity is not a metaphor, it’s not just a nice thing to say. It’s real, it’s liberatory, and I think we really need it.
However, I will say that all the Black and Indigenous solidarity in the world will never make up for white people refusing to let go of unearned power. That’s actually when we’re really gonna get free. It’s not up to us. It’s up to the people who have their feet on top of us to get off of us.
The only way that racism could probably end is if everybody who is gaining from racism chooses to give that power away. But they don’t.
But they don’t. And Tupac has this wonderful quote, where he talks about, you know, you being outside a house full of food and you’re hungry, and you knock on the door and they don’t answer and then you bang on the door, and then you sing a little song to maybe convince them to come out and open and feed you. And he says, after a while, you know you’re literally going to starve. You’re just breaking down the door because you’re not asking to eat anymore. You’re demanding to eat.
So, we could ask them to get off of us, but that’s not going to work. We have to do what I described in this book, that’s the resistance part and the power part. When we fight back, when we organize, when we say no to racism, when we say no to discrimination, when we say no to poverty, that’s when we really get free. It’s when we fight for it.
This book documents and provides context for the humiliating, violating aspects of Black life, but it also shows how resistance like Black Lives Matter and other organic social movements pushed back.
Black Lives Matter helped me to free myself. It helped teach me what liberation can actually mean.
It’s inspiring to me. It’s like, this is what we need to do. And the rhetoric, the resistance and the seriousness and the pageantry of Black resistance is something that I truly appreciate. Because we’re not just pushing back. We’re showing how our light is inside. Like we’re letting that light out.
When we blocked the expressway for Andrew Loku after he was killed and no police officer was charged in that incident, we sang songs. We cheered, we cried. And then these cars turned around in reverse to go the wrong way on the highway. And I was like, “Damn, we did it. We did this.” And it felt good. It was like a celebration of life for our brother Andrew, who is not with us anymore. And for me, we were singing and dancing for Andrew, because Andrew couldn’t be there to be singing and dancing with us and you know, things like that are just, yeah, they do really change your life, they changed my life and they made me feel strong. They made me feel powerful in my blackness. I love things like that.
You’ve made a lot of impact. How do you feel about that?
Blessed. I honour my grandmothers in this book. And the book is in particular dedicated to my maternal grandmother Adora, who’s no longer with us. I know she would be extremely proud that this book is being published. And I know my mom feels like that as well. And those things are really important to me.
But I get too much credit. I will never be able to pay back all the kindness that I get. People do stuff all the time that just goes so unrecognized. It makes me think about gratitude in a different way. And it makes me want to pay it all out because, trust me, I have been in trouble so many times in this city, and it’s Black people who have supported me and loved me, fed me, took care of me when I was depressed, when I wasn’t writing. I get a lot of credit, but people don’t see those moments when like, people bring food over to your house because they know you need to eat.
I think about gratitude in a very, very deep way now, because people thank me a lot and that feels great, but man it’s a collective experience that leads me to be able to do the work that I do. It’s a collective thing.
And I must point out too that a lot of people suffered in order for me to be able to write this book. It wasn’t easy to write. I wrote a chapter about a man who lost his life to the police and that’s like the hardest thing I’ve ever done…. But look at what his family have had to go through. He paid with his life, and his family will mourn him forever… Black people have given me an enormous privilege to allow me to tell these stories. So I am very, very indebted to my community for that.
In the eternal conversation about journalism and activism, this book makes a good “why not both” argument. In the time since you left your columnist position at the Toronto Star, where have you landed on that topic?
What’s really important for me in this conversation about so-called objectivity in journalism and activism in journalism is that everyone is activist. Rex Murphy goes and gives big speeches to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, and then he writes columns about how climate change isn’t real. That man is an activist. But no one has a problem with Rex Murphy’s activism.
I really reject the premise when it comes to these questions of activism versus journalism. All journalism is activist, otherwise what would its function be? People are always trying to influence minds, influence finance, influence power, influence decision making. The notion that that could ever be done in a neutral context is laughable.
When it comes to my own personal experience with the Toronto Star, all the white activist columnists that newspaper has supported over the years really show that race is definitely a factor in the conversation about so-called activism in journalism and objectivity. The Star recruited me and called me journalist and activist Desmond Cole in its pages, and then later condemned me for the same activism. It was trash, what they did to me was utter trash. And racist, very, very racist, because it was a double standard. It was a new set of rules for a Black journalist who was being effective in his activism, and they resented the efficacy of my activism.
They admonished me for engaging in a protest for Black lives. And of course, the great irony is that the Toronto Star was fine winning awards writing about carding, it was fine employing white journalists and taking months out of their year to investigate carding, that was all good, money well spent. They were fine with all of the accolades that came with their very good reporting on the issue of police carding, they just weren’t fine that a Black person took the next step and said, “Well, I’d better fight for my life since the police are profiling me.” That is not what the Toronto Star wanted.
In conversations about injustices, mass incarceration, carding, racism in the education system, there seems to be this kind of hesitance to name structural and systemic racism and really challenge it. It’s an entrenched belief that this system in which every institution that disproportionately affects racialized people is justified in the end, and that the system is still kind of working for good.
White people understand the unfairness. When people understand that they’re benefiting, they’re not misled to believe that there’s some equality happening. They want to keep holding on to the ball, while telling us a lecture about how unfair their privilege is. That is intentional. That is how you hold on to power. That’s how this stuff works.
But I also think that white supremacy is a system of fear, and one of its greatest products is hopelessness. White supremacy creates such a grip on people’s behaviour, their culture, their attitudes, their minds, that by the time they have woken up enough to think maybe they should do something, this crushing fear comes over them where they’re scared to fight back, because they know that the system doesn’t want you to fight back and that it has every ability to crush, destroy, discredit you if you do. White people know that too, they are very aware of all of that, and that’s why they’re so in line with the system, because they see the violence of the system and they know it can turn on them as well.
So white supremacy produces hopelessness and it tells people “Don’t you even think about fighting back, because there’s no point. You might as well just benefit and get what you can get out of this corrupt system. You might as well pretend that the corrupt system is actually a just system, because it’s not going to change anyway, and you know it.” And this is indeed a really big obstacle for us. To stay alive and to keep fighting. [Anti-apartheid activist] Steve Biko said, “The greatest weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” I’ve never heard truer words in my life.
I think we have to cultivate resistance to hopelessness. We have to cultivate a spirit of fighting and of perseverance. We cannot accept the diversions and the excuses.
Desmond Cole will talk about The Skin We’re In on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. in the Alice MacKay Room of the Vancouver Public Library. For more information, go here.
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