The Weight of Skin
*** CW: verbal harassment, racially-motivated violence ***
“Skin isn’t usually thought of as an organ, but it is the largest one. It includes everything that covers the body. The nails on feet and hands, the hair on the body and head, the calluses that form wherever contact is made most, and the genitals where contact is made least. It even has an average weight — most adults wear more than twenty pounds wherever they go. There is, however, something that the facts don’t figure.
“My skin is heavier than yours. I don’t mean objectively. If you were to take me and skin me alive, you would prove I was lying when I said ‘My skin is heavier.’ Once on the scale, it would likely arrive at a number just above twenty pounds. But that is an object’s weight. That object you weigh on your scale is not me.
“If you skinned me alive, making sure to rip off my nails from their beds and scalp my hair from below their roots, I would be screaming that my skin is heavier than yours. If you kept me alive long enough to compare my weight, before and after being removed from my object, I would still be screaming after, because my largest organ is in your well trained hands, like the possessive object it has always been to you.
“But now, what is it that screams before you? How deep will you go to find where the screaming comes from? Will you look at all? Will you gather up all the people claiming heavier skin and do the same as you did to me, so that we can all hear the victims scream over and over again?
“You invented this object to put something between you and me, and objectively, you succeeded. But my heaviness is the subject, and my subject is a scar. It’s a twisted white scar that runs from me to you. If you skin me alive to show that we are equal, only to hear me scream that my skin weighs the same as yours, you will see that the deeper you go, the whiter the scars become. Even if your skin is light.”
Her last night as poet laureate was different. It had a special electric quality to it. Years of being the token, of weekly slots placed at bars and fundraisers and government sponsored functions, such as this one, were mere cadavers to the real thing, the real body electric.
After hearing the poem, the people with the light skin in the room waited for a response. The people with the heavy skin in the room smiled on the inside, and if there were more of them, they would have cause to acknowledge this as victory. Poet laureates carry their heaviness alone, because they don’t perform for heavy crowds. They perform for light crowds.
Our poet laureate was bravest when she looked them in the eyes, and sometimes she invaded the audience's comfort zone, and not only with her poetry. They clapped anyways. Hearing the words but never really understanding what the poet was saying. The gesture left the impression of an ovation, but they clapped without the sound of hands coming together.
Once the reading is over, what itches at their minds is the guilt they think they should have more of. They praise her for her gift of helping them understand that guilt. They’ve made contact with the temperate surface of something other than them, and that’s enough to feel good. But the guilt never really is guilt, just some lesser form of hatred.
After the event, she left in her wake a dreadful overawe. The memorized lines receded into the shell of her temporal lobe, like a slimy thing that you can’t hold on to, patiently waiting to unfurl and be the second tongue of her mouth to speak again. Tonight, she recited the ones she always did, the one about the prisoners in their cages, growing sicker by the day, then another on the irony of waiting for reparations that never come from those with the most celebrated of debts. This last recitation, though, this was something she wouldn’t have thought she could do, until tonight. She was usually too nervous, and when she was too nervous, she forgot the lines.
“It was the pain that saved us...”
M.K___ listens through the tiny radios embedded in her ears as she waits at a terminal to transfer to the connector bus en route to Halifax. Transit is horrible in this city, she thinks, they should be paying me to take it.
When the bus finally arrives she mills in and takes a seat. The voices she is plugged into shake and quiver with the sound of anguish, her ears scabbed over by earbuds.
She has been following coverage on the inquiry into the missing and murdered indigenous women. Community consultations were featured in a podcast. Already hearing clips from 5 out of the 10 provinces, the inquiry was well underway.
It often feels like change, but isn’t. She knows better now. The victims would go on and on with their suffering and, in the eyes of the government, they would still be denoted as victims.
The night before, M.K___ had gone to the last performance of the province’s poet laureate. It was powerful. She smiled again, inwardly, remembering the ambiguousness of the crowd’s reaction.
Her own position was precarious. Recently, she spoke out against Islamophobia, and an unjust celebration of violent colonial history. As student activist, she often spoke out, with distressing but manageable repercussions. This time, however, there was a lash-back to her post. It was the country’s sesquicentennial anniversary.
‘North American history is full of a genocidal momentum that has not been slowed, but curbed. I refuse to celebrate a national moment that, if not approving of this, willingly ignores the multi-tier offense it is to the people that have been colonized, and the groups that are still being racially and sexually subjugated. White fragility? Reverse racism? How can there be such things? When you experience what I experience, then you can complain to me about it! Until then, fuck you all and your white privilege!’
The comments streamed in, and after the election of a neo-fascist demagogue across the border, white pride was on the rise. The comments were vulgar, reactionary and male, blurring the lines between hatred, sexual violence, and inverted guilt — pride. She could imagine them typing the error laden threats, with every misspelled word indicating the blood from their brain was in their stiffened dicks, throbbing with rape-lust and warping their enemy into an inhuman object.
@█████████ 9:52 AM
‘...Let your brown tears lub the fat white cock that I will be fucking your little muslim pussy with you hypocritical bitch!...’
@█████ 10:34 AM
‘...go back to the shit country where you came from you ugly drty whore...’
@████████████ 11:11 AM
‘...I am proud of my white heritage and if I have to kill you to set an example, I will! And i am not the only one there is, WE are MANY...’
As she was notified of them, she felt the terror of being a woman, the fear of being born coloured, and the anxiety of being human.
They had no idea that she was born and raised in their country, they just pointed and fired. As her mobile phone vibrated, and her virtual identity was lynched by clicks and angry fingers against keyboards, she looked at the other people, mostly students that filed onto the university bus. They were tapping away at the glass screens in their palms, and she did not trust them because to her, they all looked the same, because to her, they were all anonymous threats that had the potential to be real.
The mediocre white man was white in every way. He did not feel the same invisible turbulence of outrage that was in the flight path of those that looked like him, but he wasn’t racist. He felt safe as long as this was his position.
He would repeat to himself, Hold your peace and ask no dangerous questions, hold your peace…
But there were some things that the alt-right were not wrong about. Despite all his cognitive dissonance on the topic, he had to admit he was underemployed, and he was losing his historical narrative. When he said that Black Lives Matter, which he was neither proud of nor ashamed of, he was going against his own people. He may not have been mixed in ethnicity, but his feelings certainly were.
Then, again, he would repeat to himself, Don’t think, for what you think happens. Don’t think...
He first heard the Proud Boys chant ‘white lives matter’ at a protest. A statue of a murderer and the founder of the city stood over him as people demanded the immediate removal of a historic monument. A pang for belongingness agitated whatever resolve he had gained against the dangerous questions. Why was it that black life mattering meant white life not mattering, and vice versa?
The statue was concealed in a black tarp and at its base support was a mass of people. Some of them held burning herbs, sage and juniper in the air, the fumes smudging the bad spirits away. All kinds of speakers took the podium — activists and later on, politicians. Farther out, just beyond the crowd of protesters, the counter-group, the alt-right, were also gathering in number.
The former poet laureate took the mic, and she made it her intention to point them out, because up until then, they were simply being ignored. She was supposed to introduce the new poet to the public eye, but instead she took an opportunity to recite a final poem, dedicated to the Proud Boys. She had said it once before, on the night of the sesquicentennial.
The mediocre white man had never heard anything like it. It was as though she had stabbed herself with a knife, twisted it and, as if by way of some voodoo running through them, she dragged it from her in a jagged line, to him.
When she was finished, the protesters, having heard the intention behind the poem, turned on the Proud Boys. Now punctured by the sharpness of her verse, the Proud Boys yelled a few hurtful words, and moved on to avoid a fight, tails between their legs.
After the ruckus, the former poet laureate gestured toward an indigenous woman and handed her the mic. The new poet laureate took her place in front of the crowd: “These red dresses that hang from the branches of these trees represent the missing and murdered among us...”
The scarlet dresses hung on wire hangers, like tree-climbing children swaying and swinging from the boughs — only their arms and legs were missing.
He left the protest early. In one motion he opened the door to his car and turned the ignition. He drove without thinking, and the mediocre white man had taken the same route as the Proud Boys. He would have never noticed, except a plea for help stole his attention from the wheel.
He thought he recognized the woman — she wore a khimar, and looked similar to the one featured on the cover of a local newspaper. He couldn't remember which, or what the article was about. What he did remember, however, was that in that picture she had looked fierce, an ominous red zone with smoke billowing behind her. The background that the photographer used somehow enhanced her courage and determination to what was almost revolutionary. But here, in the flesh, she just looked like an average woman, on her way somewhere, possibly a late arriver to the protest.
The horde of Proud Boys surrounding her, all in military uniform, with their hair shaved close to their heads, started up with their act again — only now the numbers were uneven, weighed to their advantage. They told her what she was to them. Grabbed her. Pulled her down and into the street, into the rays of midday-light. They made it more exceptionally real than the mediocre white man could process through the tempered glass of his windshield.
He watched as the situation escalated, worsened, as the boys brutalized her with heavy army boots and yelled out blunt demands at the top of their lungs, as if the street had become the protest. He was so far lost in his own indecision that, even when they began ripping off her khimar, he could only fail to understand the sense of urgency that the situation called for, failed to see that she was looking at his vehicle, asking for whoever was inside to see that her life mattered more than his protection. His wired fight or flight response was intensified by the tonnes of vehicle that was both a weapon for him, and security from the events just outside; he could never be hurt within this privileged bubble, as long as he remained uninvolved.
He would have lost nothing if he pretended to plow into the assaulters, to scare them off anonymously with a honk of the horn. The news was full of motorist terrorism anyway. Why couldn’t he use it for good? But anonymity is prone to cowardice, and little fears become lesser evils when given the opportunity to escape into mediocrity.
Mediocrity is an invisible monster, and at the stop sign, he steered the car up the street, in the opposite direction, and listened to the words that now defined him, not by his choice not to act, but because of his choice not to choose. “...We want our country back! We want our jobs back! We want our women back! We want our pride back! We want our lives back...”
Looking into the side view mirror, as if once removed from not just this crime, but every crime he would ever commit, he thought of his best intentions, reading and re-reading the warning:
OBJECTS IN MIRROR ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR.