Black women fight stereotypes
African immigrants struggle to retain identity, U of A prof says
|The Edmonton Journal|
Sunday, May 14, 2006
EDMONTON - Phil Okeke-Ihejirika knew she was an African, a Nigerian, an Ebo woman and tribal royalty, a university professor, wife and mother. But she didn't think about being black until she immigrated to Canada.
She came face to face with the importance of her skin colour after a couple of bus rides in Halifax when people got up and changed seats after she sat beside them.
"I thought, 'You should actually be happy to sit next to me. I'm a member of royalty,' " she said, chuckling as she recalled the memory Saturday for a roomful of community immigration services leaders meeting at the University of Alberta.
Okeke-Ihejirika, an associate professor of women's studies at the U of A, said her identity had always come from her ethnic group. Suddenly, it came from her skin colour. It's one of the challenges of being a black African woman in Canada, she said.
Fortunately, she still carries the cultural identity she was born with, which balances the way she is seen here. But her children, who were born here, do not have that.
"A black child, born here, is a minority from Day 1," she explained. "So it's not simply a matter of sending first-generation children to school and making sure they get a good education. They also need to know who they are after their parents are gone."
It's another challenge Okeke-Ihejirika identified in a four-year study in which she surveyed 876 African women between the ages of 15 and 78, living in Alberta, about their identity.
According to the last Canadian census, there were 22,955 African people living in Alberta in 2001, compared to 185,760 European immigrants and 163,075 Asian immigrants. Because there are so few African immigrants and not many whites work with them, the overwhelming perception of women from the Dark Continent is a stereotype.
"They have the idea that African women in veils who are Muslim and black have little or no education," says Okeke-Ihejirika. But the majority are high school or university graduates, although most work in low-status jobs that pay less than $20,000 a year.
The women surveyed said they felt discriminated against, which they described as "being seen as less ... or as other." The majority felt being black was the reason they were turned down for employment when looking for a job. They also identified discrimination because of accent, being African, being a woman or being a Muslim.
During a question period that followed Okeke-Ihejirika's presentation, Chinwe Okelu, who emigrated from Nigeria in the 1970s, said when he found that people here wouldn't accept the cultural identity he arrived with, he decided to try and fit in by focusing on what he had in common with Canadians, rather than on how he was different.
Okeke-Ihejirika agrees African immigrants should identify themselves as Canadian as well as African, but "being black seems to be an eternal thing. Black people who were born here and whose families have been here for more than a century still find it hard to move on," she says. "We need to realize that being black means you're really at the bottom of the racial hierarchy, but we must not let that keep us down.
Okeke-Ihejirika says African women must connect with one another to form a larger, more visible group to tackle the identity issue. They must also network with and learn from other groups, such as Caribbean women, who originally came here as caregivers and have worked themselves up the job ladder.
"To move on, to successfully lobby employers to give us a chance to get this wonderful Canadian experience, we have to work as a group," she said.