Focus groups on Black youth experience expose failures of multicultural policy

Imagine having your university classmates assume that you sell illegal drugs in between classes, missing out on job opportunities solely due to your home address or having a beverage thrown at you from a moving car. These are the searing experiences of Black youth recounted in a research paper by Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies Professor Andrea Davis and published in the Journal of Canadian Studies (2017). In this paper, she reflects on more than 45 years of official multicultural policy in Canada.

“The article argues that Black urban male youth, by situating their precarious life experiences on the margins of a set of core Canadian values, destabilize our understanding of Canadian society by revealing the ways in which they are routinely criminalized and pathologized, and by demanding greater access to upward mobility,” Davis explains.

Davis’ research shows that educational and employment opportunities are limited to Black youth

Her research is focused on the intersections of the literatures and cultures of the Black diasporas in the Caribbean, the United States and Canada. Her work encourages an intertextual cross-cultural dialogue about Black people’s experiences in diaspora.

This research was funded by the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Study looks at the effects of violence on Black youth

Andrea Davis
Andrea Davis

In this paper, Davis draws on the documentary The Real Toronto (Madd Russian, 2005), filmed during the “Summer of the Gun.” Here, the racialized and immigrant neighbourhoods corresponded to 13 priority or “at-risk” areas of Toronto, defined as such by socioeconomic indicators such as income level and homicide rates.

With this documentary providing the historical context, Davis revisits the issue many years later. She is effectively checking in to see what has changed since 2005. Her paper presents the findings from her three-year transnational study of the effects of violence on Black youth in Canada and Jamaica, collected in 2013.

Davis assembled multidisciplinary team from eight university and community organizations

To undertake this work, Davis put together a multidisciplinary research team from eight university and community organizations in Canada and Jamaica. The goals of this project were twofold:

  1. to examine the life experiences of Black Canadian and Jamaican youth, with special attention paid to their perceptions of and experiences with violence; and
  2. to assess the impact of this violence on their educational and employment trajectories.

The researchers conducted two all-male focus groups between May and June 2013 in Toronto. A total of 24 Black males between the ages of 18 and 24 participated. To encourage trust, participants understood that their involvement was voluntary.

Participants were recruited through local youth organizations. Meetings took place in their local communities. Discussion in the focus groups was generated via both preset questions and free-flowing conversation. The youth were asked to describe and discuss their experiences, if any, with violence. Each tape-recorded session was roughly 90 minutes.

Findings shed light on failures of multicultural policy

Focus groups revealed that many Black youth can’t get job interviews, simply due to their address

Before presenting her findings, Davis provides a comprehensive literature review of all key research in this area, which sets the stage very well. Here, she explains the promise of democracy, the failure of Canada’s official multicultural policy in allowing youth full access to educational and employment opportunities to Black male youth, and the covert racism underlying this false narrative.

The focus groups brought to light the experiences of Black youth in their own words. One youth described his experiences with racism:

So I’ve had the situation of moving … to school in Brock, St. Catharines, with majority white people, right. Everybody in my class … they’re all rich, upper-income families.… So … I’m walking down the street … somebody driving by throws a milkshake at me screaming out the “n” word. It happens. Or me, you know, sitting in … class.… So now people are looking at me like, hey, that Black guy must sell drugs, and after the class they ask me if I have weed or something like that. And the professors would look at me, like, what is this guy doing in this class?

Another youth highlighted the limited options for Black youth in Toronto:

You try to better yourself through pursuing school or getting a job. But I wouldn’t be able to get a job because of the address that I have. I’d go to interviews,… hand out my resumé but they’d see my area on the news with some guy getting shot, so they’re not going to want to hire me.… So I change the address to my aunt’s address and do the same thing and then I get interviews. And then you notice that, hey, your whole neighbourhood is being stigmatized for being violent and nobody wants to hire you because of that.

Davis concludes that while multiculturalism promises respect for cultural differences, free education and access to jobs for all citizens regardless of national origin or ethnicity, this promise has failed. This is clearly illustrated in the first-hand experiences chronicled in this paper.

“These youths remind us that we must be willing to identify and challenge our own racial, class, and gender privileges to understand how our and other cultures function in Canadian society. By coming to these questions, Canadians have a much better chance of modelling the kind of multicultural democracy that just might change the world,” Davis concludes.

To read the article in the Journal of Canadian Studies, visit the website. To learn more about Davis, visit her faculty profile page.

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By Megan Mueller, senior manager, research communications, Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation, York University,