Review in Canadian Ethnic Studies

Race and Well-Being
The Lives, Hopes and Activism of African Canadians

By Akua Benjamin, David Este, Carl James, Bethan Lloyd, Wanda Thomas Bernard and Tana Turner  

This book fills a gap in research that focuses specifically on one of the largest racialized groups in Canada, African Canadians. The authors define the term “African Canadian” as a diverse group which includes Canadian-born Blacks (i.e., third generation and more), first- or second-generation Blacks of Caribbean descent, and first- or second-generation Black immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa. The research data were gathered in three cities: Halifax, Calgary, and Toronto, a small, medium, and large city, respectively. The key research questions addressed in the book are:

How do African Canadian boys, girls, men, and women and elders experience racism and violence in their lives? How do racism and violence affect the health and well-being of individuals, families, and communities? What actions do these people take to counteract the effects of racism and violence in their lives? What other actions can individuals, families, and communities take to increase their understanding of the root causes and effects of racism and violence? (3)

The authors draw on a large data set derived from community forums involving 300 African Canadians, a questionnaire administered to 900 people who self-identified as African Canadian and were over the age of 18, as well as 120 interviews with key informants (both Black and White) and Black community members. The Authors candidly acknowledge that the book represents a “first culling through of the research data”. The book consists of an introduction, seven chapters, an index and select bibliography. The writing style is engaging and free of academic jargon.

The introductory chapter provides a historical and contemporary context for each research site, research methodology, and an overview of the main theories and concepts: Afrocentrism, Critical Race Theory, Anti-Black Racism and Critical Hope. This is a place where it would be helpful to talk about how these theories inform the research methodology.

In chapter 2 the authors endeavor to summarize the Canadian historical scene from “slavery to the present day” (36). While this is a mighty task, the authors manage to highlight several key events within 30 pages. They begin with a brief historical account of slavery and end with an overview of the Black population in Canada. Unfortunately, the census data used are from 2001, even though the 2006 data were available before this book was published.

Chapter 3 examines the multiple manifestations of racism by looking at four sub-scales of experiences: 1) exoticization: being constructed as the Other; 2) dehumanization: terrorism at every turn; 3) marginalization: being considered inferior; and 4) alienation: the immigrant experience. In each of these four sub-scales, the authors report differences among the three cities, generations, sexes, ages and the regions from which African immigrants originated. The authors speculate on these differences, yet the reader may be dissatisfied that they are not discussed in relation to recent research or analyzed with reference to the theoretical framework.

Chapter 4 draws, for the most part, on qualitative data to uncover issues related to “Poverty, Power and the Institutional Web.” The findings indicate that the Canadian education systems remain a source of enormous stress for African Canadians, while respondents had the least problems with police and the legal system. A general weakness of the chapter is that it lacks analysis with reference to current literature.

“Racism Is Bad for Your Health” is the title of chapter 5, and it is the main point the authors make in this chapter. The authors show that “race, and its corollary, racism, just like social class, gender, and ethnicity, is a significant characteristic in determinants of health” (119) and conclude that, in Canada, “many Blacks unnecessarily die of treatable diseases” (127), a charge that should invigorate all of us to challenge inequities in healthcare.

Chapter 6 discusses mechanisms for coping with racism: reliance on a strong racial identity, culture-based spirituality, activism, social support, and the denial of racism” (141). The denial of racism is the final and longest section in this chapter.

The main focus of chapter 7 is on healing though four systems of socialization: church, faith, or spirituality; family; education; and community. Like chapters 4, 5 and 6, a great strength of this chapter is the richness of narratives that bring to life the complex experiences of racism. The final sections of this chapter address healing as a multilayered process, which involves self, family, and community, as well as the necessity of learning from the past. Sectors are emphasized as places where strengths can be built, such as interfaith-based institutions, support networks, and communities where, collectively, we can create a common vision for equality and inclusion.

This book will be of interest to a wide readership. I recommend it to students and practitioners in human and social services, including health-related fields, social work, and education, and anyone who is interested in understanding the range of experiences of African Canadians. - Susan Brigham, Faculty of Education, Mount Saint Vincent University for Canadian Ethnic Studies, Vols. 41-42, nos.3-1, 2009-2010

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