Book Review: The Skin We’re In

Reviewed by Leila Edwards

Canada’s national narrative, in contrast to that of our American neighbours, tells a story of global peacekeepers, apologetic citizens, and liberal multiculturalism. Nowhere is our purported difference to the U.S. witnessed more than in conversations about race and racism. The axiomatic belief in Canada’s multicultural values and historical innocence is often used to dismiss the experiences of racialized Canadians and camouflage the white supremacy inherent in Canada’s systems and institutions.

The Skin We’re In actively contests Canada’s national narrative by following a year in Black encounters with and resistance to white supremacy. Desmond Cole raises a wide range of stories and experiences including microaggressions in employment, anti-Black racism in education, the oppression of Indigenous Peoples, and violent police brutality. He presents the stories and experiences of Black Canadians in a way that validates; it makes our stories accessible and our emotions palpable for readers.

I enjoyed that Cole uses an intersectional approach to analyzing white supremacy and anti-Black racism. He places a spotlight on the stories of the Black queer and trans community, neurodivergent Black people, Black migrants, and Black women. Further, he consistently reminds readers that these stories are neither ahistorical nor individual. He weaves the history of anti-Black racism in Canada throughout each chapter, demonstrating that contemporary experiences are a mere continuation of state violence and oppression towards the Black Canadian community.

What I feel is most important is that Cole recognizes Canada as an ongoing settler-colonial project, relying on land theft and genocide of Indigenous Peoples. He respectfully illustrates the distinctions and parallels of Black and Indigenous oppression throughout Canada’s history. Importantly, he also identifies the Nations and treaties that govern the geographies in which the stories of anti-Black racism are situated.

Overall, The Skin We’re In forces readers to encounter Canadian settler colonialism and white supremacy by telling the stories of Black people throughout history, up to contemporary times. This book forces readers to confront Canada’s historical and contemporary narratives and reflect on what exactly is being celebrated.

The Skin We're In: A Year of Black Resistance and Power

By Desmond Cole
Doubleday Canada, 2020

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