Labour Studies

Project highlighting diversity among those with African ancestry in B.C. draws attention to experiences of Black workers

January 11, 2022

The African Ancestry Project (AAP) is an initiative that aims to explore the histories, identities, and experiences of Black people with African ancestry living in British Columbia through research and dialogue.

The project is led by Alice Mũrage, Research Fellow in the Faculty of Health Sciences, in partnership with the BC Black History Awareness Society. Labour Studies’ Assistant Professor Dr. Maureen Kihika has provided support as an academic reviewer.

Through a combination of surveys, interviews and focus groups, with a focus on storytelling and community building, Alice has compiled a report sharing the findings. The report will be released in February 2022, and will act as a resource for British Columbians involved in work related to racial equity and diversity. A public dialogue event will be hosted after the release of the report; further details will be shared once they become available

I had the opportunity to connect with Alice and Maureen to ask them about their work on the project, the report’s findings, and the relevance of the research to the study of work and working people. Read on to learn more about the project.

Can you tell me about how you two met and ended up collaborating on the project?

Alice: We first met, briefly, at an event organized as part of the Afrocentrism Conference organized by UBC and SFU students in 2019. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o was speaking; a thinker we happen to both admire and he is Kenyan! We are both of Kenyan background. However, I came to know of Maureen’s research interests and work later on. I reached out to her via email in March 2021 with a request for her to collaborate in the African Ancestry Project. At that time, I had completed the research and was writing the project report. I invited her to review the first draft of the report as a subject matter expert. She wholeheartedly accepted noting possible synergies with her work. Shortly after we collaborated on the 2021 SFU Community Engagement Initiative grant which made it possible for me to conduct a community review of the report. Through her, the project was also able to secure additional funding from the Labour Studies Program to fill a budget gap for this work. Maureen and two other academic reviewers provided critical feedback on the draft report which I recently finished editing. I am very grateful that our paths crossed.

Maureen, based on reading your bio and touching on your publications, I understand your research and teaching historicizes socio-economic inequalities faced by Black Canadians and looks at the experiences of racialized Black workers. Can you share a little about how the African Ancestry Project connects to your work and the study of labour and working people?

Maureen: For me, Alice’s work with the African Ancestry Project served to reinforce and really validate many of the theoretical premises I teach in class and research about workers and work. I was heartened, but dispirited, to see the real-life stories of people that are shared in Alice’s report. This research and report acutely vocalizes the realities of exclusion and isolation experienced by racialized Black workers at work in Canada. Students in my Labour Studies classes are often invested in discussing the tragic lives of workers in the global South. However, it seems we have lesser clarity that these issues occur even in Canada and the ways in which they unfold, right here. Reading about the experiences of Black British Columbians helped to visualize how some of these unfavourable working conditions are layered, and manifest in subtle but equally denigrating processes in British Columbia.

For example, I was struck by how eloquently the AAP reported the issue of foreign credentials not being recognized, and how this forces African immigrants to return to school to re-train for many years. Although many immigrants go back to school to pursue additional credentials, research shows that this does not necessarily result in finding desired work. In fact, government data reveals that even when controlled for educational achievement, Black immigrants still have the highest level of unemployment and the lowest rate of employment.

It was also very fascinating to hear participants in the AAP report discuss the ‘Black Tax.’ The Black Tax refers to the reality that Black people feel like they must work twice as hard to get the same recognition as their peers. The Black Tax also refers to the idea that a single Black person represents the entire “race” and must therefore always strive to be excellent. This goal is not only unrealistic for workers, but also goes to show the double standards expectations we set for people that are considered “different.” Whereas some are only encouraged to do the bare minimum, others are expected to go above and beyond and face harsh penalties when they fail to deliver each time. The AAP also brought up some of the questions I research and discuss in my classes on belonging. Specifically, this report and research contextualizes how Canada’s state multiculturalist policies for example, those addressing the workplace such as the Employment Equity Act 1985, often do not go far enough to counter some of the negative treatment Black and other workers of colour face right here in Canada. 

Your research for this project emphasizes storytelling. Why do you think it’s so important to share people’s stories?

Alice: I believe storytelling is essential in enabling understanding and empathy; it bridges worlds. One of my fondest childhood memories is of me, my siblings, and cousins huddling around my grandmother’s small kitchen in a rural village in Kenya. She would serve us food as she shared stories of her life and how it was for her growing up in a colonial country. I was always wowed by her stories, some seemingly surreal; like how they would hide when the askaris, hired by the British, would come around to conscript soldiers for the Second World War. Those stories allowed me to see the world with her eyes and appreciate why she did what she did. How do you understand and empathize with someone whose story you don’t know?

The African Ancestry Project centers stories of people of African ancestry in the province because their stories are often ignored, untold, or marginalized in Canadian discourse. I spoke to people who were so thrilled to tell their stories because they wanted Canadians to understand them. Their stories were being told for the first time to a Canadian audience.

The diversity in histories, identities and experiences of people of African ancestry is not fully appreciated. To this day Black people are seen and addressed as a monolith, even in academic and policy discourse. The report presents nuances and contradictions that shape the experiences of participants. It presents the stories of 162 survey participants and 40 interview and focus group participants. It therefore offers only a glimpse of the 40,000+ stories of people of African ancestry in the province.

The project aims at creating an avenue for starting to understand this rich diversity and questioning deep-seated misperceptions and attitudes that sustain racism.

Are you able to share any highlights of the report or project, or anything that has surprised you?

Alice: For me, the highlight of the project was engaging with other people of African ancestry and creating an avenue for others to interact and share their experiences. Focus group participants noted how safe they felt to be vulnerable to share their personal stories. There was some laughing, crying, and consistent solidarity. Some participants shared how rare being in such a space was. In one focus group, participants ended up sharing contacts so that they could meet up afterwards. In another discussion, a participant shared how he was having a hard time getting professional credentials and a union representative in the group offered to assist. In a mixed focus group, participants who had immigrated to Canada asked multi-generational Canadian participants for resources to learn about Black Canadian history. The multi-generational Canadians also wanted recommendations to learn about the history of Africa. Those moments were very heartwarming for me.

Something that surprised me was the extent to which the Black identity is contested. The Black identity meant different things to different participants: It was an imposed identity; one that contributes to the erasure of unique and diverse identities; one that is learned and consciously performed; one that results in unbelonging; a political identity; one that inspires pride; and one that some cannot accept. To one participant it was vulgar to even say Black, he just said “the B-word”. In a focus group one participant suggested getting rid of Black as an identity. Another participant in the group sighed, sharing her pride in the Black identity and noting she doesn’t know what she would be without it.

The Black identity is indeed one that is imposed as a social construct with a historical utility in justifying enslavement and human hierarchy. Following an external contestation through social construction by primarily white men, those who are racialized are left to contest with themselves and among themselves on if and how to accommodate this identity and how to navigate a world that embraces the construct. Those who immigrate to Canada and become Black overnight join in this contestation as novices.  This ‘in-group’ contestation, as the project indicated, results in tensions and conflict within Black communities. As one participant noted, identities given to Black people change over time. She noted that while it was once polite to call someone Negro in B.C., it is now not acceptable. Would Black become unacceptable in the future? And what would those racialized as such be categorized as? What will be the new social construct and what contestations would result from that?

Maureen: To add to Alice’s point, I’m also curious to conceptualize how shifting identity constructions, spatially and temporally, destabilize understandings about racism. Studies show that while capitalism is inherently exclusionary, the ways in which it is divisive or puts factions between people with common interests changes over time. Capitalism is adaptive! In this regard, how will shifts within our capitalist way of life modify our sense of place and belonging within that structure? If it is no longer “acceptable to call someone Negro” in diverse and multicultural BC, can workers still refer to the existence of anti-Black racism? Is racism over? Alternatively, are processes of racialization – and the racialization of Blackness in particular – taking on newer forms in this framework of an increasingly adaptive and hierarchically organized capitalist structure? Rather than a departure from systemic racism, my research suggests that society may be adapting from an overtly to a subtly caricatured ‘New Racism.’    

Can you talk a bit about the plan for releasing the report and the impact it might have? Are there particular groups you think can benefit from reading it?

Alice: The plan is to release the report in February next year (2022). It will be publicly available for free online through the B.C. Black History Awareness Society website. I will be working on disseminating the report as widely as possible to Black communities and Black-serving organizations as well as allied organizations, public and university libraries, and to policy makers at the municipal and provincial level. Some of the participants and community reviewers working in these institutions have volunteered to disseminate within their networks once published.

I believe the report will benefit people of African ancestry first and foremost. The beauty of seeing our stories told in our own voices, as one community reviewer put it, is inspiring. I hope it will inspire continued solidarity. Black communities are pooling together to address anti-Black racism and challenge structural racism, and we need to do this from an understanding of our vast diversity in histories, identities, experiences, and perspectives. That will bring us together in this work.

Secondly, the report invites those who engage or want to engage with Black communities in work around anti-racism or multiculturalism, or anything really, to first educate themselves. In appreciating the diversity of Black people, you get to start from a place of understanding and empathy. The report also invites those in academia, policy circles, and employers to educate themselves; not to treat those racialized as Black as a monolith. For research and policies, including those in workplaces, to appreciate and address related nuances.

Lastly, this report is also for everyone and anyone in B.C. I hope that it will inspire genuine curiosity and empathy towards the Black people that surround you, at school, work, in transit, at events etc. You will have a greater appreciation of what sits behind the category ‘Black’ and you will use this word with an understanding and consideration of the diversity that sits behind the word. Ultimately, I hope the report will inspire dialogue that will challenge misperception and attitudes that sustain racism.

Is there anything else you would like to share or mention?

Alice: We will be organizing a public dialogue event to officially launch the report in March, after the report is published online. Details on this will be shared in due time.

I might pursue some knowledge translation work with some community reviewers who had great ideas on how to do so to ensure that the report reaches a diverse audience.