Last Friday morning, my world felt different. I had watched Desmond Cole’s documentary The Skin We’re In on CBC the night before (if you missed it, you can watch it here).
The Skin We’re In – a brief overview
The Skin We’re In was insightful, personal and thought-provoking.
I appreciated how the issue of anti-Black racism was laid out, as well as Desmond’s own trajectory from journalist to activist (as the CBC page noted). There were clips from his visits to Ferguson, Missouri after the Michael Brown killing by police; his participation in a Black Lives Matter (BLM) protest in Toronto and subsequent meeting with BLM Toronto (BLMTO); a BLMTO protest at a City of Toronto meeting with police about the shooting death by police of Andrew Loku. Desmond visited Andrew Loku’s sister in Saskatchewan; we saw a clip of a lecture by George Elliott Clarke; Desmond returned to his hometown of Red Deer; and he visited the Black Loyalist Heritage Centre in Shelburne Nova Scotia (ironically placed because the people of Shelburne did not want Black people to live there when the Loyalists arrived, so Black people made their own town, called Birchtown). Desmond also visited the current “Black town” of New Preston, Nova Scotia, where the RCMP office is attached to the community centre – which is a visual manifestation that sums up anti-Black racism in Canada.
Linking the past with the present
The Skin We’re In takes us on a journey that linked the past – how Black Loyalists came to Canada, what that looked like and what happened – to help explain the present. And that history is crucial because Black Loyalists who had been promised (and subsequently given) freedom by the British to help with the American Revolutionary War were given passage to “the free land” of Nova Scotia in 1753– at a time when slavery was still happening and legal in Canada. (Slavery was deemed illegal in Canada in 1833). Desmond Cole uses a clip from a lecture given by George Elliott Clarke to explains the practice of stopping Black youth through a historical lens. Clarke explains that the existence of slavery when Black Loyalists arrived in Nova Scotia meant that a Black person walking freely was an anomaly since they were still considered property and therefore didn’t have freedom of movement. That sense of power-over, control, and suspicion continues today. The clip ends with George Elliott Clarke saying, “Knowledge of history is dangerous. Knowledge of history is radical. You understand history, no one can lie to you.” That was one of my favourite parts, because it brought everything together for me. How I wish we all learned things like this in school…
The roots of racism in Canada
The picture that The Skin We’re In paints is clear – that racism is rooted in the colonization of Indigenous Peoples on this land and their subsequent trauma at the hands of the government, and that anti-Black racism is further entrenched by the history of slavery and how that narrative continues to shape our collective psyche – both for White people in how Black people are seen and treated (consciously and unconsciously), and for Black people in terms of intergenerational trauma: experience-based trauma that is passed down through generations.
It was clear to me, anyway.
But as I walked the streets of Toronto over the weekend, and watched as people interacted and went about their business, I wondered what was different for them, and what the existence of this documentary may mean. A signal of change? Or a key piece in the eventual tipping point for Black (and racialized people) in this country? Or…?
I was reminded that we each live in our own worlds, filled with our own concerns and perspectives. The documentary was important to me, and likely to Black people (and racialized people). But we “get it”.
As human beings, if something doesn’t impact us, we often don’t “get it”. Sometimes we don’t even know it exists! It’s often challenging to see a problem or a barrier if it isn’t our reality. And often in that case, we also don’t understand the urgency.
How do we move the needle of understanding and empathy, in order to create real change in this country?
That’s my question. What do you think?