Navigating two worlds: new identity constructions as determinants for successful integration of new black immigrant and refugee youth in Canadian society.

Author:Baffoe, Michael


The article draws from a research project designed to investigate some aspects of the difficulties that Black African immigrant youth undergo in their attempts to integrate into Canadian society. It focuses on the critical issue of identity construction and the struggle to fit into new cultural milieu by new Black immigrant and refugee youth in Canadian society. It reviews some of the existing literature on identity and identity construction of immigrant youth and their relationship to immigrant integration and adaptation. Secondly, the frameworks upon which this study was anchored and the research methodology employed in this study are presented. Thirdly, the research methodology employed for this study is discussed. It then examines the issue of "identity" deconstruction and reconstruction among ethnic minority immigrant youth in Canada and the struggle to "fit in" into the new cultural milieu. A portrait of the family dynamics of these youth that are put under severe strain because of the tension and struggles associated with the integration and adaptation process are also examined. These are backed by some interesting narratives from some of the youth, community leaders and parent participants in the study. I conclude with an analysis of the findings from the study and recommendations for social work intervention with these new immigrant youth in Canadian society.

Census Canada figures released in March 2009 show a dramatic increase in Canada's population, 5.4% (1.6 million, the highest in any of the G8 Industrialized countries), over the last five-year period, (2003-2008). Sixty percent of this population increase is attributed to immigration. The new demographic reality of Canada is that Asian and African immigrants have replaced the old European stream and have changed the demographic face of Canada (Statistics Canada, 2009). These changing demographic trends in Canadian society with "visible minorities" (including Blacks) forming a significant proportion of the Canadian population underscore the need to examine certain critical areas that affect the integration of a section of the new immigrant population in Canadian society. This is the community of Black new immigrant youth who are part of the second generation of immigrants in Canada. The second generation of immigrants refers to children of contemporary immigrants who are born to immigrant parents in the diaspora. For the purpose of this study, the focus is on contemporary immigrant children who have arrived in Canada before they reach adulthood. This group of immigrant youth, who are mostly in their early and mid-teenage years are now referred to as the "one-and-a-half generation" (or the 1.5 generation). This term is now used to characterize immigrant children who straddle the old and the new worlds but are not fully part of either (Rumbaut, 1994). Many scholars on immigrant experiences agree that the one-and-a-half generation of immigrants have distinct physical and psychological developmental stages in their socialization processes in the family, the school in the new homeland and the society at large as well as their memories and attachments to various sociocultural aspects of their original homelands (Zhou, 1997; Portes and Rumbaut, 1996; Firmat, 1994; Portes and Rumbaut, 1996; Moss et al., (2010).

Identity of visible minority immigrant youth: For the immigrant youth, especially the teenage youth, successful integration into their new society depends to a very large extent on the maintenance of a positive identity of themselves or a reconstruction of a newer identity that is shaped and controlled by their desire to fit into their new society ... and quickly. Identity is defined as a feeling, inter-subjectively shared by individuals in a given group that is based on a sense of common origin, common beliefs and values, common goals and a sense of shared destiny (Suarez-Orozco et al. (2004). Identity has two components: Personal Identity, which refers to how one views himself/herself (determination and choice), is influenced to a large extent by the dominant ideologies. There is also Social Identity which refers to how the society/world around us views us. How society views us have a great influence on how we view and see ourselves.

Ethnic identity: The issue of identity is an important one for all immigrant youths and particularly for children of color because it establishes the psychological reference points and ability to cope with the discrimination and prejudice to which children of color are subjected in Canadian society. Nagel (1994) points out that individuals and groups attempt to address the problematics of ethnic boundaries and meaning through the construction of identity and culture. The construction of ethnic identity and culture is the result of both structure and agency, a dialectic that is played out by ethnic groups and the larger society. Nagel (1994) argues that although ethnicity is the product of actions undertaken by ethnic groups as they shape and reshape their self -definition and culture, ethnicity is also constructed by external social, economic and political processes and actors. This constructionist view of identity also posits that through the actions and designations of ethnic groups, their antagonists, political authorities and economic interest groups, ethnic boundaries are erected dividing some populations and unifying others (Barth, 1969; Turner, 1974). Ethnicity is thus constructed out of the material of language, religion, culture, appearance, ancestry or regionality. The location and meaning of particular ethnic boundaries undergo continuous negotiation, revision and revitalization both by ethnic group members themselves as well as by outside players, observers or authorities (Nagel, 1994).

These ethnic boundaries determine who is a member and who is not and designate which ethnic categories are available for individual identification at a particular time and place. As Appiah and Gutmann (1998) point out, racial and ethnic identities are achieved and ascribed. Identities are achieved when there is a sense that this "identity is mine. ... I can choose how central my identification with it will be, choose how much I will organize my life around that identity" (p. 80). Ascription of group membership has two main sources: those made by group members ("you are a member of our group") and those made by the majority group (you are a member of that group").

Suarez-Orozco et al. (2004) maintains that negative distortions of the social mirror have profound implications for the development of identity among members of ethnically and racially marked groups. Nagel (1994) further argues that ethnic identity can be both optional and mandatory since individual choices are often circumscribed by the ethnic categories available at a particular time and place. Some of these categories, usually those of the minorities, are often stigmatized with certain disadvantages placed on them. This therefore makes the retention of this identity unattractive to the youth within such ethnic groups. As Phinney (1996) also points out, ethnic identity, for minority youth growing up in a new society, is a complex cluster of factors including self-labeling, a sense of belonging, positive evaluation, preference for the group, ethnic interest and knowledge and involvement in activities associated with the group. This means that the strength or degree of one's ethnic identity is significantly influenced by factors such as the language spoken in one's home, the ethnic composition of one's neighborhood and the percentage of one's friends who are in the same ethnic life (Boykin and Toms, 1985).

Adaptation outcomes, according to Portes and Rumbaut (1996), are also determined by structural conditions in the host society. For the one-and-a-half generation of immigrants, these contexts pose even more challenges. Among some of the top challenges is the process through which these particular immigrant population groups navigate their way to be able to define and consolidate their identity in their new environment.

Theoretical framework for research: The research draws its theoretical foundation and strength from the body of literature on critical race theory and its tenet of counter-storytelling and ethnic identity construction. McDonald, (2003) points out that critical race theory explicitly focuses on social inequalities arising through race and racism. For this study I drew on two tenets of critical race theory. First, critical race theory works to name and discusses the daily realities of racism and expose how racism continues to advantage Whites and disadvantage people of colour, designated officially in Canada as visible minorities (Dei, 1998). Secondly, it legitimates and promotes the voices of people of colour by using storytelling to integrate experiential knowledge drawn from a shared history as 'the other' into critiques of dominant social orders (Ladson-Billings, 1998). For the participants in this study who were struggling to navigate a new educational and cultural system of their new society, this aspect of critical race theory is very pertinent.

Although race and racism are at the center of a critical race analysis (Dei, 1998), Solorzano and Yosso (2002) also posit that race and racism should be viewed at their intersection with other forms of subordination such as gender and class discrimination. For the visible minority youth in this study, the layers of subordination based on race, gender, class, immigration status, surname, phenotype, accent and sexuality all intersect to shape their difficult navigation experiences in Canadian society. What they have in common with other people of colour is what Ladson-Billings (2000) calls, the "experience of a racialised identity" (pp. 262).

I draw on the tenet of counter-storytelling to privilege minority immigrant youth, especially Black African immigrant youth in Canada...

To continue reading