Black Women: Luckiest to be Here?
By Yohi Mersha
Zanana Akande, the first black woman to serve in the Cabinet of the Ontario Government
|Kay Livingstone , activist and Radio host
Stumbling over an internet blog that discusses black women in Canada, I was forced to think about the status of black women in the Canadian social hierarchy. The blogger asserts that black women are the luckiest of all to find themselves today in Canada, whether as the descents of slavery or recent immigration and they should be grateful each and everyday. The reason the blogger sites for his/her assertion is related to the calamities of gender based oppression that the blogger assumes reigns all over Africa. Although the negative aspects of patriarchy in Africa are indubitable, the tone of the blogger that suggests all African women are victims is a little bit annoying. Reading most of the responses to this blog left me posing these questions: are really black women the luckiest of all to be here? And where do we find black woman in our social hierarchy?
No one forgets the determined long journey of black people to Canada to freeing themselves from the vicious circle of slavery; in the 18th C. History tells us Canada was the safe haven that provided black people the priceless gift of freedom. And yet today, Canada continues to give home for many, who are either in search for a refuge or looking for the opportunity for growth. Among different nationalities that immigrate each year to Canada, people of African and Caribbean origin compromise a significant number, making the black community as the third large visible minority group in the country. Would that be enough to conclude that Canada is the multicultural society that it claims to be?
Looking back to the history of black people in Canada, even though the run away slaves embraced freedom on Canada’s soil at the time, they were yet to face discrimination and segregation. Black women as part of the black community faced double jeopardy at the virtue of their gender and their color in the then racially divided society. One of the few books that narrate the history of black women in Canada, ‘No Burden to Carry’ by Dionne Brand, exhibits the story of some black women at the time, whose fate was bounded to work as domestic servants and farm workers. According to their accounts, compared to their white counterparts, their chance of wage earning in the industrialized system of the time was almost rare.
In recent History, women of African descent have become part of Canada due to immigration. Still studies focusing on black women are very limited. A study conducted by the Canadian Association of Social Workers in 2005, points out that, black women still face double jeopardy when it comes to employment and poverty because of their gender and racial identity. In discussion related to poverty in Canada, racialized communities are more likely to be in poverty. For example in Toronto, where the black community population is high, racialized community members are three times more likely to find themselves in poverty than other Canadians. In Hamilton, where 20% of the population is under the poverty line, 37% of this figure is that of racialized groups.
The reason sited as the causes of these facts are barriers related to the job market, immigration status, and accreditation of foreign education. Black people, especially black women earn less and are less likely to get a job. Black women are also more likely to work in low income jobs than their men counterparts even if their qualification is equal to black male and white women. According to status Canada 2001, average income of Black Canadians was 23,560 (versus 29,769 for Canadians). We find black women’s status as the lowest in the hierarchy (20,929). This low income mostly is not connected to lack of education on the part of the black women. Statistics show that 25% of black women have some higher degree, which is the same compared to their white counterparts (26%).
In addition to their work outside the house, Black women have many responsibilities in the house hold, including taking care of children. Black men are less likely to help their wives in domestic work. Culturally back in Africa, men aren’t supposed to work at home. This mindset hurts the women when it is applied in the Western setup, where the support system, which helps the African woman in balancing work at home and outside, is nonexistent. Usually immigrant African women miss the assistance they would have received in raising children from family and community members. As the risk for poverty is higher for visible minority children, single black mothers are also affected by this fact. Even in regards to HIV/AIDS, black women are also sited as highly affected along with aboriginal women.
Even though, black women have faced various difficulties in our society as a result of the intermeshing effects of race and gender, we find some strong black women, who have penetrated the system and made their name in the Black Canadian history. To mention a few: Kay Livingstone, Activist and Radio Host, Zanana Akande, the first black woman to work in the Cabinet of Ontario’s Government, Jean Augustin, the first black woman elected as federal member of the parliament, Betty Riley, the first black woman television producer and of course the current General Governor of Canada Michaelle Jean.
The problem related to poverty, as a racialized phenomenon in Canada, needs immediate policy related solutions to improve not only black women’s lives, but also the majority of the immigrant community affected by the problem. The 2007 report card on child and family poverty states that 85% of Canadians have trust in government programs to minimize the rate of poverty in our communities. In relation to the racialization of poverty, many suggest that policy reviews related to foreign education accreditation and employment would bring about positive developments. We shouldn’t also overlook the subtle work place racial and gender discrimination in visioning a better society in the future.