Saturday, January 27, 2007

Review: The Caribbean Diaspora in Toronto

[Frances Henry. The Caribbean Diaspora in Toronto: Learning to Live with Racism. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994.]

Frances Henry is a Canadian academic with a long history of focusing her professional work in support of anti-racist struggles, particularly those by African-Canadians. Before reading this book, I was aware of (but had not read) her extensive work looking at the racist portrayal of African-Canadians and other racialized people in the Canadian media as well as her work in collaboration with the Urban Alliance on Race Relations in Toronto doing groundbreaking work that empirically demonstrated racism in hiring in Toronto in the '80s. In fact, I had actually assumed that she herself was Black, but in fact she is a white woman.

I read this work because the current chapter that I am working on focuses on the story of a Trinidadian Canadian lawyer who has long been politically active in Toronto. Obviously this book is relevant background material.

The book is a very standard academic study of the Caribbean diaspora in Toronto -- or, more particularly, those within the Caribbean diaspora who would trace their heritage to Africa rather than South Asia. It combines quantitative data obtained from sources like the census and other Statistics Canada instruments with extensive use of interviews, observation of people in situ, and other elements of qualitative ethnographic study. The statistical information that is presented is definitely out of date. However, while I think the detailed descriptions of community realities presented in the ethnographic material, which comprise the bulk of the book, have probably evolved in important ways in the 15 or so years since this work was done, it is probably still relevant to understanding the experiences of the Afro-Caribbean diaspora in Canada today.

The study covers many different spheres of life. It talks about the immigration process, adapation and mechanisms for coping with a new society and with racism in that society, education, employment, family organization, religion, leisure and social life, the "illegal subculture", and interactions with the criminal justice system. It is not completely comprehensive, of course.

For example, one area that was lacking was attention to politics. Not that it was completely absent -- a few pages describing a community service organization here, a throw-away reference to continued attachment to homeland politics there -- but it was never really a focus. Even mainstream electoral politics got rather brief treatment. And I know that there is a long history of social movement-style organizing within the Black community in Toronto that received a passing mention at the end of the chapter on police-community relations, and that's it. It would also have been interesting to me to hear about the derivations of political thought in the community, and its relationship to things like anti-colonial movements in the Caribbean in previous generations and movements by Black but mostly not Caribbean people in the United States, for example.

Also, it does not include any material on the experiences of queer people in the Caribbean diaspora in Toronto. Certainly the continuing importance of secrecy as a survival strategy for many queer people of all backgrounds adds additional complications to documenting queer experience. Still, I can't help but contrast that absence with the success that the study team had in documenting the realities of a small group of people in a subculture focused around illegal activity -- surely a rather secretive bunch.

My biggest concern with the book is its enthusiastic adherence to very traditional disciplinary norms. For one thing, I appreciate the exhaustive effort and the great care that goes in to presenting information from qualitative research in ways that is resistant to mainstream challenge even when the findings are contrary to mainstream assumptions, but it does result in a style of writing that is quite boring.

Beyond that, this book is a good example of disciplinary norms pulling the text in directions unintended by the author. There were examples of this in the sections on criminal behaviour within the community as well, but for me it stood out the strongest when it talked about family forms. Henry went out of her way to emphasize that she was not endorsing a blame-the-victim analysis, and given her long history of alliance with the African-Canadian communities in Toronto, I have no reason to doubt her. At the same time, a basic thesis of the book was as follows:

In summary, the differential incorporation of Caribbean people in Canada can be explained in terms of two major forces that affect the community: (1) the maintenance of cultral patterns that impede mobility in Canada, such as some family patterns, relations with education, social and leisure patterns, etc.; and (2) racial discrimination.

This sentence was followed immediately by another strong disavowal of blaming the victim. Yet because the data are grounded in observations of the community, the community becomes the object, and the implicit or explicit answer to "why", at the centre of understanding point (1) whether the author intends this or not. You can even just look at the construction of that sentence: "maintenance of cultural patterns that impede mobility." There is no explicit recognition that whether or not a given cultural pattern will "impede mobility" or facilitate it is dependent on which group has power to impose their cultural patterns as a norm -- in other words, item (1) boils down to a particular material expression of white supremacy, but the book does not extend its analysis to include attention to how cultural norms are constructed and enforced and what that should mean for those seeking social change. I was able to see it partiuclarly in the context of the discussion of family patterns because embedded in the passive voice observation that high frequences of things like single mother-headed households "impede mobility" is a completely untroubled domination by hetero/sexist norms, an enforcement of what "family" is supposed to mean via punishment through "impeded mobility" when you don't meet that. It's hard to see what "not blaming the victim" means in this context, except maybe that we (agencies? governments? societal elites? Caribbean-Canadian community leaders?) should intervene in changing these cultural practices in supportive rather than judgmental ways. Which sounds to me a lot like blaming the victim, but just being nice about it. There is certainly nothing there that would lead a reader to what I think are the more appropriate responses, which would generally involve working to challenge the rather narrow range of ways of doing family and relationships that are possible without risking social punishment.

I don't want to be too hard on the book. As I said, it is thorough and careful. It is also quite clear in naming racism as one of the prime factors shaping the experiences of the community, and those of us who do not experience racism can certainly learn from this documentation. Even beyond that, it contains lots of valuable information. But at the same time, it should be read with careful attention to the implications of what questions we ask, how we try to answer them, and how traditional practices of academic disciplines serve to shape those answers towards politics that can be quite troubling and leave them open to easy use by people with politics that are even more troubling and oppressive.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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