Teaching The Skin We’re In

As part of my Grade 12 University level English course this year, I decided to create a unit on the book by Desmond ColeThe Skin We’re In. Over the last few years, our department has been updating our book choices, and last year my colleague, who was then teaching ENG4U, did Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi. She had good feedback from her class but had concerns with the American content. So this year, when I suggested The Skin We’re In, we both felt it would be a great fit and connect more with our students.

To start setting up the unit, I took inspiration from some of the materials my colleague used and a lesson package for Stamped by The Teaching Distillery. I also utilized the discussion guide for the book from the Amnesty International book club and the Educational Resource created by Hot Docs for the documentary of the same name.

Serendipitously, just prior to launching the unit, my school board hosted book chats for professional development and had various titles up for selection. I chose and read Deep Diversity: A Compassionate Scientific Approach to Achieving Racial Justice by Shakil Choudhury”. The book was extremely impactful and came to inform a great deal of the work I did in the unit.

One of the first things I think young people, especially nowadays, should learn is how to see for yourself and listen for yourself and think for yourself. Then you can come to an intelligent decision for yourself. 

Malcolm X

Unit Goals

  • identifying and stamping out racist ideas and thoughts within myself and systemic racism within my community;
  • identifying micro-aggressions and reflecting on how to modify questions or comments in ways that are less likely to reflect stereotypic assumptions and beliefs;
  • identifying how form, style, and poetic devices communicate meaning; and
  • building on our media literacy skills by exploring a small cross-section of political and social protests through images and headlines focusing on constructed narratives and identifying inherent bias. 

Introduction

I introduced the unit by sharing about Desmond Cole and his Toronto Life article which became the impetus for the book. We discussed important terminologies like carding, racial profiling, marginalization, oppression, stereotypes and privilege and outlined our impressions of the characteristics and stereotypes of police officers.

We then viewed the documentary, The Skin We’re In. The documentary was a great kick-off. It really piqued the interest of my students. Hearing about places so close to them, places they have visited, and events they are familiar with got them talking and discussing more than I could have hoped for. The documentary is really beneficial for setting the stage, particularly as it is not a repeat of what is in the book. While being called by the same name, it is distinct in the specific subject matter, so it does not feel repetitive for the students once they dig into the book.

After the documentary, we debriefed by talking about some key moments to clear any confusion students had about any part of the film. We consolidated our learning by revisiting the initial impressions students had of police officers they discussed prior to watching the film.  

We embarked on reading together to have a shared experience for the initial parts of the book. Throughout the unit, excerpts were shared aloud and discussed.

Implicit Bias

A unit like this cannot be tackled without addressing and learning about implicit bias. We read the article “If You Have a Brain, You Have Bias” by Komal Gulati and then we viewed the segment, “Diversity: Not So Black and White,” from The Agenda with Steve Paikin featuring Shakil Choudhury, author of  Deep Diversity: Overcoming Us vs. Them. In the segment, Choudhury asserts that people all harbour biases, including racial. Built into the brain by evolution, these biases interfere with decision-making and actions in ways that are both subtle and complex. In this interview, Choudhury discusses inherent bias and how, with understanding, people can achieve a more balanced approach.

Diversity: Not So Black and White, The Agenda with Steve Paikin

Students then took the Implicit Bias Test from Project Implicit of Harvard University.

We related all of that to our book, The Skin We’re In. In the first two chapters, Desmond Cole describes two particular incidents: the arrest of John, an art gallery owner in Toronto, and the shackling and handcuffing of a 6-year-old black girl in Mississauga. Students considered and discussed the following question from the Amnesty International Discussion Guide:

“The concept of journalistic objectivity comes up in discussions of political and social discourse often, but as Cole presents in both the novel and conversations since then, he feels as though objectivity is selectively used when beneficial to the author/network, especially when reporting on events against racialized individuals. As Cole argues, this flawed notion of objectivity further perpetuates systemic racism as it does not allow connections to be made against the overall fabric of our society.

What are your thoughts on objectivity as understood by media? Is objectivity attainable in media or does everything come with a bias? Cole has argued that not only is it impossible to be objective as a journalist, but impersonal; what are your thoughts on that? Do you feel it is essential to be objective as a journalist? Do objectivity and truth go hand in hand, or do you feel like it is like oil and water?”

Amnesty International Book Club Discussion Guide: The Skin We’re In
Riot police in helmets twisting arms of protester behind his back while arresting him on street – Stock photo

Poem Resisting Arrest

Alongside The Skin We’re In, I supplemented our reading with articles, videos and poetry. “Poem Resisting Arrest” is one of the poems we explored. It is by Kyle Dargan, a poet based in Washington, D.C. In this poem, included in his book of poetry Anagnorisis, a speaker describes a poem that questions its arrest. Inspiration for including this poem came from Common Lit.

Kyle Dargan reads his poem “Poem Resisting Arrest”
“Poem Resisting Arrest” by Kyle Dargan

Micro-aggressions

My students were well versed in many of the concepts we discussed regarding racism but a large part of their understanding was focused on overt racism so I incorporated the Micro-aggressions lesson from Breaking Prejudice. Essentially, students are divided into groups and given a list of statements divided into two columns. They read each statement in Column A, think critically about how a person could interpret the statements as a “put down,” then, draw a line connecting the statement to what they believe is the best possible interpretation from Column B. After this, students rewrite the statements so that they do not contain a hidden or negative message. Statements included comments like “That’s so gay”, “Where are you really from?”, or “I don’t see colour.”

The class came back together to discuss their experience and consolidates the activity with reflective questions, for example:

  • Alvin Poussaint refers to the cumulative impact of experiencing microaggressions as ‘death by a thousand nicks.’ Do you agree or disagree with this statement? Explain your answer Or
  • Derald Wing Sue has argued that the impact of subtle prejudice, such as microaggressions, is more harmful than the impact of blatant discrimination. Do you agree or disagree with this proposition? Explain your answer.

After the activity, we read Shakil Choudhury’s article, “A Neuroscience Perspective on Systemic Discrimination,” originally published in Principal Connections, fall 2018 and then watched the video, “Combatting Systemic Discrimination in Schools” also by Shakil Choudhury.

Media Investigation

At this point, our unit moved into a media investigation. I used portions of Unit 4 from the Ministry’s Master course for ENG4U-Grade 12 University (2020). In this investigation, we analyzed photos and interpreted the message the media portrayal relayed.

A specific image we focused on was this one from the Black Lives Matter Protest, 2014. We discussed the “story” the image told on its own then we looked at the original caption: “Edward Crawford throws back a tear gas container after tactical officers work to break up a group of bystanders on Chambers Road and West Street on August 13, 2014 in St. Louis, Missouri. Photo: AP St. Louis Post Dispatch. Robert Cohen.” We paid particular attention to the words used like “throws back” and “officers work to break up” which both lead to a positive image of the police and a negative, violent image of Crawford. In actuality, the protestor, Edward Crawford, was picking up a tear gas canister thrown initially by police. When interviewed, Crawford said that he was trying to keep those around him safe by throwing it away from the crowd.

Black Lives Matter protests in 2014.

Tim Wise continued to inform our study in this brief video discussing how African Americans are portrayed in the media.

Search Signals and Boosters

Finally, we explored the influence of social media using lessons from NewseumEd. We began by looking at Search Signals. An infographic and explainer video helped us understand some of the often-invisible ways that search engines —and people — make recommendations. We followed that lesson up with Search Boosters, how content creators can boost their search rankings using techniques and tricks to push their content higher up in search results, even if it doesn’t necessarily deserve to get the top spot. An animated discussion about algorithms and how skewed our sense of the world can become if we rely on only getting our information from social media.

Podcast or Photo Essay

As a culminating project for the whole unit, students had the chance to take on the role of an editor. Students chose a protest, event, or other topic related to The Skin We’re In and were tasked with creating a photo essay or a podcast about it. Students were to research and include an annotated bibliography as well as an artist’s statement.

Possible topics were:

  • Protests over the death of George Floyd
  • Indigenous Day of Action
  • Idle No More
  • Not Another Black Life
  • Occupy
  • Police in Schools (School Resource Officers)
  • Abdiramen Abdi
  • Carding
  • Dafonte Miller
  • Immigration Detention of Children
  • Asylum Seekers
  • School to prison pipeline
  • Other topic approved by the teacher

If students chose to do a podcast, I provided them with a few examples they could listen to before they got into creating theirs. Some of the podcasts I suggested were:

Criminal: one of the best, most well-researched true-crime podcasts out there. Plus it’s hosted by Phoebe Judge, one of the smoothest and most soothing voices in audio (even when she’s sharing some pretty horrific stories). 

1619: This year, on the 400th anniversary of the first slave ship landing on America’s shores, the New York Times launched the 1619 Project. The wide-ranging series, which aims to give new context and grapple with the complicated legacy of slavery in the United States, included a podcast hosted by Nikole Hannah-Jones that tells that story through narrative, archival audio and essay-like observations.  

Caught, The Lives of Juvenile Justice: follows a handful of underage criminals who were actually caught committing a crime and — often because of a combination of their race, their zip code and bad luck — are now serving time. Unburdened by questions about guilt or innocence, host Kai Wright takes a critical and essential look at the juvenile criminal justice system and how it helps or hurts young, impressionable teenagers. Many of the stories will pull at your heartstrings. 

The Lazy Genius: Whether you’re having a hard time keeping it together or need a little extra motivation for your day, this podcast can help. Get advice on how to deal with little things like organizing your sock drawer or big stuff like navigating political differences or religion.

Students were also required to include an Artist’s statement consisting of an explanatory paragraph for the reader that meets the following criteria:

CriteriaArtist’s statement meets these criteria
why you decided on this topic
a brief description of the events you are portraying, which should include your research – reason, name of organization, date and place and other relevant information
explain at least three decisions you made in shaping your assignment
describe a challenge you encountered and how you overcame it.

Furthermore, research was a necessary element of this project, so students were to include a full bibliography with at least two annotated entries.

We are in the midst of photo essay and podcast creation and so far the ideas I’m hearing about are creative and insightful. I am eagerly looking forward to the “reveal.”

Come back in a week or two to hear and see for yourself on the new (under construction at the moment) podcast and photo essay page.

Bibliography

Choudhury, Shakil. Deep Diversity: A Compassionate, Scientific Approach to Achieving Racial Justice. Greystone Books, 2021.

Cole, Desmond. The Skin We’re in: A Year of Black Resistance and Power. Doubleday Canada, 2020.

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