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

Today I’m doing a slightly more detailed non-fiction book review than normal. The Skin We’re In deserves 5 stars, but I’m not sure if I want to rate non-fiction books. The reason being that I want to focus on the meaning of a book, not how that meaning was delivered. If anyone has thoughts about this, I’d love to hear them in the comments! Also, since I haven’t included a blurb this time, you can click the book cover to access its Goodreads page.

Book: The Skin We’re In: A Year of Black Resistance and Power | Genre: Non-Fiction | Page Count: 248 | Published: January 28, 2020 – Penguin Random House

There are so few books by Canadian authors that discuss Blackness and racism, which is why this book caught my attention. For too long, Canadians have acted as if racism is not a problem here or that it’s not nearly as bad as it is in America, so we don’t need to worry about it. Desmond Cole is here to show everyone that it’s time to wake up.

The Skin We’re In specifically focuses on Toronto (the capital of Ontario, Canada) and some of its suburbs. The main topics he discusses are the school system, policing, and immigration. Starting from January 2017, he details 12 consecutive months of Black resistance against these deeply racist institutions. Through personal experiences, Black history, statistics, and court cases, Desmond Cole exposes Canada’s failures as a post-racial nation.

I am long past the days of being surprised at institutions and people in positions of power enabling racism. But I was baffled when I learned about the existence of School Resource Officers (SRO’s). These officers are law enforcement members who specialize in maintaining safe school environments. For context, my province is quite different from Ontario in terms of population—they have close to 10 million more people—and demographics. In British Columbia, we don’t have metal detectors or police presence in our schools, and at least where I went to school, suspensions seemed more like myths than anything.

The now terminated SRO program was a nightmare for BIPOC. From the stories Cole tells, it is clear that SRO’s were not there to keep Black people safe. By putting police in close proximity to students, the school board was facilitating the school-to-prison-pipeline, considering that Black students and other marginalized groups were disproportionately arrested by SRO’s. Cole emphasizes that from an early age, Black students are more likely to be suspended than their white peers. This creates unequal access to education and lower graduation rates, inevitably leading to further disadvantages later on.

A sixteen-year-old should not be arrested at the school he attends because an officer deems him suspicious. There is no reason for a six-year-old girl to be handcuffed, and yet it happened. When called to the school, the six-year-old’s mother said she had never seen her daughter behave the way that they described. Clearly there was a problem with the environment, not the child.

I am disgusted by the level of violence that police get away with.

Here are some facts:

  • From 2016 to 2017, Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit (SIU) did not charge 94% of police officers who were being investigated for serious crimes
  • In 33 years, 19 charges of homicide have been laid against police officers, of that total there has only been ONE conviction
  • In 2017 alone, at least 65 people died during or after an encounter with the police (makes you think about bullet #2)
  • Over the span of 10 years, 70% of 144 investigations into serious crimes involving the police were kept private

As for Canada’s racist immigration policies, this point stuck with me:

“Immigration laws did not apply to white settlers who colonized this land. Only after they claimed their place here did they decide they needed an entry system that strictly favoured their kinfolk. And while the rules continue to shift, the value of white immigrants over all others has not.” -Desmond Cole

Desmond Cole is a fantastic writer and I highly recommend this book. Racism is alive in Canada, but we aren’t without hope. If there is one thing he makes clear, it’s that advocacy works. In one of the most moving examples, he tells of how Canadians came together and were successful in getting a Somalian refugee’s deportation case thrown out. When people assemble, make noise, and demand change, results are possible. Canada has a long way to go and I thank Desmond Cole for his bravery in calling out racism in this country.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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