2020 Toronto Book Award winner Desmond Cole calls out anti-Black racism with his book The Skin We're In
This interview originally aired on Sept. 12, 2020.
The Skin We're In is journalist and activist Desmond Cole's first book, and it explores life in Canada as a Black person. When it was published in February 2020, it became one of the bestselling books in the country and later won the 2020 Toronto Book Award.
CBC Books named Cole a writer to watch and The Skin We're In is a book for our present times as it vividly catalogues injustice and anti-Black racism in Canada in the year 2017. It chronicles Cole's personal journalism, activism and experiences alongside stories that made the headlines across the country, including refugees crossing the Canada-U.S. border in the middle of winter and the death of Somali-Canadian Abdirahman Abdi at the hands of the Ottawa police.
Cole spoke to Shelagh Rogers about writing The Skin We're In.
The longest year
"I spent a long time working on this book. It seems like five years ago that this book came out, rather than just a few months. Back then, I was looking forward to going on tour, which I did get to do for a little while, and connecting with Black people in different parts of the country.
As the months have gone on, and more people have been able to read the book, I've been able to start having more of those conversations, which is gratifying.
"I was looking forward to having some more time where I would be able to talk with people about some of the stories in the book, what struck them when they were reading, what experiences paralleled other experiences in their own lives.
"As the months have gone on, and more people have been able to read the book, I've been able to start having more of those conversations, which is gratifying."
Why 2017 was important
"I was having a conversation with one of our literary greats of this country, Dionne Brand, who asked me how my book was going. I was struggling for a while — how do I frame this story or set of stories? What's the container for this work that I'm trying to do?
"I told Dionne that I was thinking of a historical approach. She was a little puzzled by the fact that I wanted to do that. She told me that I was doing all this activism and writing about the present moment.
"She said, 'So why not try to do that instead?'
I was struggling for a while — how do I frame this story or set of stories? What's the container for this work that I'm trying to do?
"Each chapter of the book is a month of the year 2017. I had this idea because I had run into somebody that summer. They had reminded me of some [policing incidents] that happened about 10 or 12 years ago.
"And I thought, man, running into this person and telling the story that way — telling the story of running into a Black person that I hadn't seen in years — and then reminding me of this collective experience that we'd had seemed like a cool way to tell the story.
"In this case, the issue was police officers in our schools. I start the book with this meeting in a grocery store, talking about the 'cops in schools' program and being like, 'Hey, remember 10 years ago when this happened?'"
The eye of the journalist
"Part of my critique of objectivity in journalism is the withdrawing of the journalist from their own work. This idea that I am not a person when I'm reporting: I'm a camera lens or I am a digital audio recorder and I am simply capturing the truth that is out there. I don't have an opinion, I don't have an analysis.
"I try to challenge the notion of objectivity by saying I am a person with a certain understanding of the world and a certain set of viewpoints and starting points. When I tell you what the news is, from my perspective, I'm including all of my experience. I'm including all of my thoughts. I'm not pretending that I don't believe in racism. I'm not pretending that racism is an open debate.
I try to challenge the notion of objectivity by saying I am a person with a certain understanding of the world and a certain set of viewpoints and starting points.
"When I'm standing watching Black Lives Matter Toronto stop traffic on the expressway because the police killed Andrew Loku in 2015, I'm telling you how I'm feeling when they start to march on to the highway.
"I was terrified."
What's going on
"Black people have been in an uprising in the United States since the death — since the murder, really — of George Floyd. And for months, continuously now, they have been demonstrating in the streets.
"Mainstream media has stopped reporting on it as faithfully as they were at the beginning. But it's still happening every day. I've learned something by watching journalists go into these places where the police are beating people, like in Portland, where the police are disappearing people into vans, where police are using tear gas and using rubber bullets to shoot people who are sitting on the ground.
Black people have been in an uprising in the United States since the death — since the murder, really — of George Floyd.
"Journalists have expected that they could go into these war zones, cover these acts of despicable violence mainly against Black people and our allies, and that they won't get caught up in the fray. That the bullets will miss them all, that no one will actually target them, that the police won't hit them, the police won't shove them over.
"It's because they don't see their job as bringing light to the injustice that police are doing to Black people. They just act as a neutral lens, capture their video and go home. And now that they're getting beat down, now that they're getting arrested, now that they're getting pepper sprayed and tear gassed, they're shocked.
"They thought that they could document Black pain and suffering without having to pick a side, as it were."
Desmond Cole's comments have been edited for length and clarity.