Sk8 or Die!!: careful recklessness as resistance

i. careful

Stepping foot on my own skateboard for the first time at twenty-three I felt old and scared. Everyone keeps telling me I’m young. I know better. I saw the boys down the street skating at seven and eight years old, see them now at the park pulling tricks easily with their low centres of gravity. This body has stretched far from childhood and the same fears I had about skating as a kid resurfaced as I stepped on my deck: I look too female, my body is too long, I have bad balance, my skin is too brown. People will look at me. I hate people looking at me. 

So, why did I start? Skateboarding seemed like a self-centred exploit to me. All those teen boys, hypebeasts, fuckbois pulling tricks and hitting jumps, stupid kickflips to launch themselves into heteronormative peacocking for girls they’d all be assholes to later. Fuck that. To be like those boys and men would be too much like repeating the patterns of all the men who’d let me down in my own life. I didn’t want to take some lackadaisical stance on my own safety, spend time out of my day not focusing on making “real change” and instead rolling around, bothering pedestrians. But I really wanted to skateboard. It was my last secret desire.

 This sounds dramatic, but it’s true. Something about it always looked revolutionary when it wasn’t obnoxious. It’s my body’s response to the political structures that make me feel like I’m destined to die young. Skateboarding has become my antidote to microagressions: a microassertion that my body exists as it is and deserves to hurt and to heal as much as any white-cis-het-fuckboi in his prime. Even better: it’s fun.

Skateboarding has become my antidote to microagressions: a microassertion that my body exists as it is and deserves to hurt and to heal as much as any white-cis-het-fuckboi in his prime. Even better: it’s fun.

When I started skating, I skated by the Bow River. I live next to the river and the paths that line it are where I still skate most often. On the path, rolling along, beyond the faces of the public strolling through nature, I find the river to watch and move with. The rapid motion of that turbulent blue river is similar to the motion of skating. It pushes up and down over the rocks that line its bottom, a balancing act of pushing forward and altering its shape over rough terrain. 

Skating is surprisingly fast in getting you from point a to point b. Or, maybe it’s that time vanishes as you focus on only what is in front of you, around you. Whatever awful memories come flooding back, you can move past them, surrounded by beauty, let yourself fall into the flow of thoughts negative or positive and come out the other side still living. 

Calgary, for all its climate deniers and oil bankers, is full of wildlife. It’s the most contradictory place I’ve ever lived. We have among the greatest number of green spaces of any city in Canada, and 825.3 square kilometers of urban sprawl. This city has the largest outdoor skate park in North America: Shaw Millennium Skate Park, where I often skate with my friend Ava. Even with all these big parks, the city is built for cars that move in streams across ultra-efficient highways as coyotes and bobcats and deer commute up their highways of rivers and ravines. It’s not rare to catch a glimpse of wildlife even in the city centre. 

Meanwhile, Jason Kenney preaches separatism, cuts to essential services such as public education and healthcare while promoting bigotry from the legislature. Alberta is not a careful place when it comes to protecting its vulnerable populations or the Earth’s future. The alt-right have become confident with rise of the new provincial leadership. In my neighbourhood, nazis, yellow vests, and people spewing anti-immigrant rhetoric feel empowered and safe, fully cared for by the political system. I must be more careful. And yet, great care is given to preserving green spaces for Calgary residents to spend time in, moving together along pathways as a supposed community. We all head to the mountains for the weekend in long streams of SUVs and trucks.

I want to move on from being careful even as I don’t think we should throw the concept away completely. I think that being careful in a body that holds intersections of oppression on its skin is an important survival practice. But there comes a point when being careful becomes attached to a conformity that feels like a shirt, starched, ironed, uncomfortable, holding your arms at your sides when you desperately need to wave for help. What I proposed to myself this summer was a careful recklessness: to put my body into situations where it could be injured, and to work as hard as I could to push boundaries while quite literally strengthening myself. 

to put my body into situations where it could be injured, and to work as hard as I could to push boundaries while quite literally strengthening myself. 

Being careful makes me tired. For many years, my mouth was so careful it didn’t say anything anyone might disagree with, that might lead to some conflict. Avoiding conflict outside led to conflict inside; I couldn’t even talk to myself in a way that didn’t create conflict. Instead, I let my consciousness drift out of my body where I didn’t have to think about the microaggressions or the outside world and my internalized acceptance of oppressive structures that are forced upon my body.

While what I talked about formally in therapy as social phobia, anxiety, and depression, are ingrained in my genetics, these illnesses have also been tangibly worsened by the white-cis-het dominant society that we all find ourselves in as participating members. The most effective therapy for social phobia is exposure therapy. I took inspiration from it in my choice to learn to skateboard. The idea behind exposure therapy is simple: you place yourself in a graduated series of situations that will trigger your phobia, increasing the difficulty of the situations over time. As you become accustomed to them, you are less likely to become anxious. 

I think this last part about becoming accustomed is not quite right. Especially for phobias that are logical in the context of a white-cis-het dominant culture. My fear of speaking up has always made sense: I grew up in classrooms with teachers and students who often engaged in Black and queer topics with lack of understanding, tact, and sometimes outright racism. Like many mixed race and queer kids, I didn’t trust the people around me, including family members and close friends, not to be racist, homophobic, or generally participatory in upholding structures that directly denied my existence, or at least made me deeply uncomfortable. 

To be reckless with my body meant putting my survival at risk in a way that’s densely layered. Beyond the risk of topical injury, going for a skate alone in the evening might mean I encounter someone unexpected and dangerous. People yell at me sometimes from their cars. A whistle or hoot, racist remarks. One time, on my way back from Pride, a man yelled, “Your flag makes me sick!” My response, a tired “fuck off” comes from the same place as all my other desires—from a need to microassert my survival, if even momentarily.

As the summer continued, I faceplanted, scraped elbows and knees, bruised and busted my body creating all sorts of new shapes on my skin. All the same places I used to scrape when I was a kid were scabby again. Rolling down a path by the Bow River one rock or branch could trip me up and throw me on the concrete. Falls bring me back to my childhood. What hurt me then is still what hurts me now. Healing never ends. All my life, I’ve wanted it to. My goal was always to get better, to stop worrying about what might go wrong. Don’t worry be happy bullshit. But now I realize there’s no preserving this body when existence and injury are so tightly pressed against each other. 

And so what if I were more intentionally reckless with my body? 

ii. reckless

I’m still scared I might fall when I get on my skateboard now. When I was first learning, skating badly, imbalanced in that first month I made it my goal to fall every day. If I didn’t fall, I wasn’t trying hard enough. I no longer need this deal with myself to keep growing in my practice. Now that I can balance on a board, can move forward, through public spaces: parks, sidewalks, pathways—it seems silly to wait for myself to fall. Falls have become more rare. My body remembers them, anyway. Just in case. 

I don’t think I would have started skating if I hadn’t been invited in. It was Ava who invited me. She came in to our shared workplace, a coffee shop, one day with her skateboard all covered in red flowers and asked me if I wanted to skate with her. What did another Black femme see in me that looked like I could cut it in the skate park? I wanted to try more than anything. The only thing holding me back from skating was my narrow view of who I could be in public space. She’s four years younger than me and she’s taught me everything about letting myself exist in public. 

We’d meet up once a week at least at the park, skate, talk, then head to work, or home (one time to buy hair. The guy at the hair store thought I was Ava’s brother. Ambiguity of gender, ambiguity of familial ties.) Our bodies moving up and down the halfpipe, sometimes in sync, two queer mixed people talking through our lives, interspersed with silence, curse words, slips, and the roughness of wheels on cement. I wore a helmet. I cracked my head against the cement and survived. Careful Recklessness. 

Going to the park together meant that we didn’t catch any grief from the older, more experienced, white skaters. We went purposely in the morning to avoid crowds. We moved together with each other because we were careful with each other’s bodies even as we let our own fall and scrape. We never had any direct encounters with racism but we could see how charged a space the park could become through the writing we found on walls. 

image by Trynne Delaney

In particular, there was a wall that had some resistant poetry pasted up on it. A few days later we returned to see that it had been written over with virulently racist messages. It was hard to say much more than “I’m so mad.” I’m so mad, I’m so mad that a public space is not for me.

I’m so mad, I’m so mad that a public space is not for me.

I’m so mad that I’m not supposed to be in this space. I’m so mad that there’s no conversation, no trying when people leave racist messages like these on walls. It’s about keeping us out. It’s so obviously about keeping us out. 

Even following this incident at the skate park I didn’t feel scared to be there when I was with Ava. Despite the violent messages we kept going back. These messages appear when and where you wish they wouldn’t. There’s nothing you can do about them beyond continuing to show up. The city of Calgary is fast to erase any writing on walls that betrays the unrest in this colonized space. I imagine scraping back layers of paint to find the racist messages we saw and more underneath and more underneath and more underneath leading to the realization that the if the mural or conversation wasn’t approved by the city its messaging is rendered invisible or temporary. Our streets and parks are pristine and whatever messaging tries to break through is silenced by the ever present hum of big trucks, big business, big money. 

Clean spaces, erased surfaces are white spaces. These public areas are cleared of anything that might arouse suspicions that this land we exist on was stolen and continues to be occupied by a power that sweeps whatever doesn’t reinforce it away into the rivers or landfills or else paints it over, whitewashes words it prefers not to hear. 

Once I realized the skate park was a place that I and other marginalized folx were actively being erased from, it almost felt like I needed to be there more, to prove that it didn’t matter if I was supposed to be or not. Another micro-assertion: I was there. We were there. We are here.

Another micro-assertion: I was there. We were there. We are here. 


iii. careful recklessness

Midsummer, our skates came to an end when Ava broke her arm, and I left to visit family in Montreal, where I hoped to skate with my baby brother.

My brother also got his first skateboard this year. When I visited my family in Montreal I took the opportunity to spend time with him by way of skateboarding. Both of us were strong in some areas, weak in others. My baby brother has always hated being told to be careful. He’s a pretty cautious kid for all that, but more of a risk taker than me. He showed me how to grind on a curb. I showed him how to ollie (it’s still really my one and only trick). Falling, for him, didn’t seem to be as dire. I remember picking him off the floor when he banged his face when he was learning to walk. Now he tries not to cry ever. Boys don’t. Boys will, when they have a particularly rough fall. 

All of us racialized queer kids grow up too soon. I tried to be careful not to grow up until I had to. But still, at ten or eleven, everyone told me I had an old soul. All that meant was that I had already been in situations where I saw difficult things that my peers hadn’t yet. Part of that carefulness not to grow up was a fear of having to move forward into the swamp of adulthood that had already leeched into my life through my parents’ lives: financial struggle, failing relationships, job stress, racism, sexism, productivity culture. All that still exists on a skateboard. But childhood does too. Play is necessary for growth in adult life as much as it is in childhood. 

My partner also started skating this summer. Far away from me in Montreal, a completely different city. We talked to each other about what we learned over the phone, how good it felt to move fast, how our scabs and scars were doing. All my childhood rewrites of Avril Lavigne’s “Sk8r Boi” as a gay love story between two sk8r grls were realized. 

One night she told me this story: she was younger, looking out the window of her parents’ car. They were driving through downtown Montreal and she spotted a girl skating fast across the sidewalk, her dress trailing behind her. 

She told me that’s who she wanted to be when she was older. 

Isn’t it what I wanted too?

It’s what so many of us who stand in intersections want. We want to be something vivid, to be remembered. We all want to etch our future selves on our lustful childhoods—all those wishes that we can move on from our presents into something beautiful, dreamlike. Someone moving fast through these broken times to somewhere we can all heal.