Second-Generation African-Canadian Youth: Setting a Research Agenda

by Rita Nketiah

African youth experience Canada differently than their immigrant parents, who “often express a desire to counteract the perceived ‘negative influence of African-American popular culture.’” Such youth possess multiple ethnic and racial labels to identify themselves while facing discrimination in Canada.”

Second-Generation African-Canadian Youth: Setting a Research Agenda

by Rita Nketiah

This article previously appeared in Pambazuka News.

African youth are often lumped in the general category of ‘Black,’ in what some scholars have called the ‘inflexibility of differentiation.’”

This essay begins in pieces. It is my attempt to piece together the realities and experiences of a group that, up until this point in Canadian history, has been under-theorized: second-generation African immigrant youth. I believe that the reasons for this are many. But before we begin the discussion, it is important to locate myself as a second-generation African woman who has spent the majority of her life in the Greater Toronto Area. My family first arrived in Toronto in 1988 from Ghana, West Africa at the height of its economic collapse. We settled in the West-end of Toronto in a predominantly newcomer residential area, amongst Caribbean, South Asian and other African communities.

I was not raised as an African-Canadian. I was raised as a Ghanaian, an African living in Canada. Our parents did not think that far ahead. They were not here to fit in, nor create an identity that would be constitutive of “Canadianness.” In fact, the identity they sought to create for me would be outside of Canadian identity, and not quite reflective of contemporary Ghanaian society, either. As immigrants, they lived in this nebulous space of remembering their yesterdays, while learning to navigate their present realities. Raised within this context, three distinct cultures: the Ghanaian culture created within the home and through social networks; my immediate local neighborhood cultural context which was predominantly Black, Diasporic and working class; and lastly, the mainstream Canadian society infused with piecemeal multiculturalism.

While traversing these three worlds, I was often confronted with my inability to fully “pass” in any of them. I began to question if other African youth were having similar experiences growing up in Canada. Did they also feel dislocated when navigating these worlds? Were they completely acculturated? Were they indifferent? So, it was these salient questions that has led me to embark on an exploratory research project about African youth. What I discovered is that up until recently, most scholarship about African immigrant youth has actually been subsumed under other categories. For example, while much has been written about new and first-generation African immigrants, scholars have sometimes made the mistake of assuming that immigrant children also deal with the same types of settlement and integration challenges. In reality, African children raised in the Diaspora often navigate very different socio-cultural realities than their parents.

The second challenge with much of this research is that African youth are often lumped in the general category of “Black,” in what some scholars have called the “inflexibility of differentiation” (Tettey and Puplampu, 2005). And as Zaami (2012) notes, while African and [other Black] immigrants may share physical traits, “the assumption that their experiences, and the nature of their adaptation and…social exclusion, are [easily mapped onto each other] is unwarranted.” For example, African youth are often learning to navigate Caribbean hyper-visibility in the construction and presentation of Black Canadian identity, given the longer history of Caribbean migration to Canada.

“Most of this multicultural ethos tends to mask the continued structural inequalities that insidiously marginalize immigrants of color in areas of education, employment and housing.”


Another challenge in speaking about African youth in the Global North is that much of the data about second-generationers draws from the American experience. However, given the different political, cultural and historical realities of Canada, this data is not always transferable. Prior to the 1967 Trudeau-instituted Multicultural Policy, which ushered in a diverse range of skilled and non-skilled immigrants, the Canadian nation-state was imagined as a white nation (Banerjee, 2000; Razack, 1998; Dei, 2005; Whitaker, 1991). And yet, today, this former “whites-only nation” is drowning in its own rhetoric of multiculturalism. However, research by Mensah (2000); Bannerji, (2000) and Galabuzi (2001) note that most of this multicultural ethos tends to mask the continued structural inequalities that insidiously marginalize immigrants of color in areas of education, employment and housing. At the same time, it may be argued that Canada’s multiculturalism stance ironically opens up the space for African immigrant youth to actually identify with their parents’ culture in ways that American assimilation does not.


Indeed, I would argue that given this context there is an increasing need to articulate and study second-generation immigrant needs, experiences, and challenges. This essay will begin to unpack the ways in which African youth express and lay claim to an identity in a Canadian context. My paper is guided by two questions: First, how do African youth in the Diaspora express and/or negotiate their cultural identities in a multicultural society such as Canada? Second, what do these narratives tell us about the changing nature of “Black Canada” and globalized African identities? The paper ends with a short reflection on the way forward in this bourgeoning field of New African Diaspora studies. I believe that this paper begins to offer some insight about the potential and quality of life for African youth living in the Global North.

Acculturation and Building Community

So what do we know about African youth in Canada? Well first, research conducted in the past decade or so suggests that African youth are learning to build a sense of community amongst their ethnic groups and in the larger Canadian society. As with most immigrants, Africans engage in community building in Canada because it is often vital to their economic and social success during settlement (Yesufu, 2009; Wong, 2005; Creese 2011). Particularly, for immigrant parents in smaller cities or less diverse communities, adopting a pan-African identity becomes a political strategy with its own benefits (Creese, 2011). Foremost amongst these benefits is the ability to provide the children of African immigrants with the opportunity to learn and absorb their parents’ culture. For example, Creese (2011) finds that in the relatively small African immigrant community of Vancouver, community members engage in a range of practices and activities to build community for the second-generation, including the establishment of an African soccer league, music societies, community organizations and cultural centers, and a federation of national (African) organizations. Interestingly, parents often express a desire to counteract the perceived “negative influence of African-American popular culture” (Creese, 2011). Community members in Vancouver promote cultural centers to teach their children what they believe are the four (4) big African values: “respect for elders, respect for authority of fathers and husbands, communal solidarity, and the sacredness of life” (Creese, 2011). Indeed, the literature, here, suggests that the ability of children to create community often depends on the efforts of their parents to expose them to cultural values and beliefs.

For immigrant parents in smaller cities or less diverse communities, adopting a pan-African identity becomes a political strategy with its own benefits.”

Ojo (1997) also notes the importance of creating or re-imagining the cultural homeland in a particularly hostile Canadian environment. Her work considers how her bi-cultural African/Caribbean identity is negotiated in the space of a Trinidadian beauty pageant in Toronto. She draws on her own experience of growing up in Canada with an African parent, to suggest that connecting with her parents’ home culture was a survival strategy. In her study on African-Canadian youth involved in a cultural beauty pageant, she found that such cultural spaces make it possible for youth to connect and build community within their Diaspora. Often, within these cultural spaces, second-generation youth create an imagined homeland that meets their needs for belonging – that is, a homeland “free of racism, sexism, classism and patriarchy” (Ojo, 1997). While the obvious danger, here, is a mythical or romanticized version of what home may have actually been like for their parents, second-generation youth rely on these cultural spaces and re-imaginings in order to make sense of their own dislocation in Canada. Other research complicates these internal cultural spaces as highly contested, as second-generation youth struggle for and over meaning. In her focus group interview of second-generation Oromo-Canadian refugees, Kumsa (2005) finds that Oromo youth, many of whom arrived in Canada as refugees during Ethiopia’s civil war, are navigating be-longing within three different communities: the Canadian national community, the larger Black Diaspora community, and among Oromos across North America. The history of European expansionism in Ethiopia further marginalized the Oromo people within the nation; this minoritization becomes heightened in the migratory process as Oromos become stigmatized by the label of “refugee.” Not only do these youth have to contend with othering in broader Canadian society, but they also struggle against other black communities (including Ethiopian migrants) and amongst Oromos themselves. In fact, when it comes to be-longing with other Oromos, there is an interesting divide that occurs, whereby in the face of other difference such as racial difference with white Canadians, and cultural difference with other blacks, Oromo youth assert a strong cultural identity; however, when those variables are removed, the internal differences become magnified, such as the division between American and Canadian-based Oromos. Ironically, when the two groups meet, they assert a strong patriotism for their host countries.

Oromo youth are navigating be-longing within three different communities: the Canadian national community, the larger Black Diaspora community, and among Oromos across North America.”

In another study of second-generation African women in Alberta, Okeke-Ihejirika and Spitzer (2005) suggest that youth have a much more flexible understanding of community – one that is not constricted to place and space. Indeed, when these youth talk about their “community,” they often embrace their ancestral homes, their Black Diasporic networks and the larger Edmonton community. Even more, this study suggests that African youth in Alberta operate as a “social network,” because they do not interact with Africans on a daily basis, but they draw on each other for strength and resources. Admittedly, one of the challenges in extending their notion of community to their transnational family derives in their lack of competency in their native African language(s). Often, parents act as the link or bridge between children and the homeland, as children are not able to communicate with their cousins and family members back home in their dialect. Yeboah (2008) also cites language as a major challenge in building community between older and younger generations in the Diaspora; and he argues that the lack of basic language skills in the native tongue will continue to widen the generation gap in the host country. And yet, his study of Ghanaian youth in the Ohio area also suggests that while some children have completely abandoned their parents’ native language, others retain the language, but are sometimes embarrassed by their parents speaking Twi in public. Yeboah (2008) concludes, however, that it is “still too early to tell if these second-generation youth will join the mainstream middle-class America or will become part of a marginalized rainbow underclass by learning English and neglecting Twi.”

Experiences in Education and Employment

In the areas of education and employment, research remains quite limited and, in fact, suggests mixed experiences for this demographic. Notably, Zhou (2000), speaking more generally about immigrant children, suggests that they tend to fare better than native-born minorities because “they are rooted in family, culture, and a community that emphasizes education and positive attitudes towards public school”. And yet, many scholars writing in the Canadian context have suggested that Black African youth, perhaps as a direct result of this inflexibility of differentiation mentioned earlier, struggle with racism within the school system. In 2008, for example, after a Toronto District School Board report was released stating that there was a 40 percent high school dropout rate amongst Black youth, community pundits were outraged, calling for the establishment of an Africentric school to correct this downward spiral (Dei, 2008). Codjoe (2005) also notes that the Eurocentric worldview of the Canadian curriculum often contributes to the push-out rates amongst Black youth. This whitewashing of education often denies the realities of African-Canadian youth, and completely erases Black people from Canadian history. Dei (1997) also argues that the education system is reflective of the greater hegemonic discourses in Canadian society. For example, youth of African descent are often constructed as unintelligible, low-achieving, lazy and criminally-minded (Codjoe, 2005; Watts-Warren, 2009). Other scholarship also suggests that teachers usually have limited knowledge about Africans, which can create feelings of dis-identification and apathy in the classroom. African students are also confronted with the ignorance of other Black students, whose knowledge of Africa and its people is usually limited to popular media representations of a poor and destitute continent (Kumsa, 2005; Nzegwu, 2009; Abdi, 2005). Indeed, there is a failure of Canadian schools to “adequately address the cultural, social, psychological and education needs of African students” (Codjoe, 2005). To cope with this lacking support, African youth turn to each other for encouragement in their studies (Okeke-Ihejirika and Spitzer, 2005; Ojo, 1997). All of this research suggests that when it comes to education, there is an upward battle for African youth; that second-generation African immigrants may have a higher educational attainment than native-born children is certainly not the result of institutional support, but often despite this lacking support.

Identity, Naming Practices, and Negotiating “Blackness”

The challenges experienced by second-generationers in the education system as discussed above provide us some context to appreciate salient issues of identity, belonging and self-naming practices. As some have noted, our identities are often pre-determined by social and historical processes; past events and circumstances, as well as contemporary configurations (Ojo, 1997). In considering identity formation for African youth in America, Clark (2008) discovered that the increasing presence of African communities across metropolitan cities has given youth a context for which to embrace and connect with their African roots (Clarke, 2008; Kumsa, 2005). And yet this research also suggested that African youth oscillate between using multiple ethnic and racial labels to identify themselves, which change depending on their setting. There is evidence to suggest that while some Africans are aware of the superimposed identities and adopt them, there are other youth who consciously resist what they see as the homogenization of blackness by identifying as “African” or with their respective nationalities (Creese, 2011; Clark, 2008; Yeboah, 2008; Okeke-Ihejirika and Spitzer, 2005; Ojo, 1997). Particularly, for African youth, there is often an early awareness of anti-Black racism (Lewis, 1992), which plays out in the socio-spatial exclusion from mainstream Canadian society and even within neighborhoods that are predominantly racialized. Zaami (2012) notes, for example, that for Ghanaian youth in the Jane and Finch corridor of Toronto, this anti-African hostility manifests itself through their difficulty in accessing restaurants, shopping malls and recreational centers (in and outside Jane and Finch); racial profiling by police; difficulty in acquiring a driver’s license; alienation in the workplace and challenges with employers; and the general public’s often limited knowledge of Africa(ns). This often leads to a diverse array of internalized beliefs about one’s cultural identity in relation to the greater host society. For the youth in Zaami (2012)’s study, they adapt to this exclusion “through reformulation of ‘dress codes’, Anglicizing names on resumes, and masking of their actual neighborhoods.” And for youth who arrive here at a much older stage in life, the perception that acceptance grows overtime is sometimes incorrect, much to their chagrin. In her study on African immigrants in Vancouver, Creese (2011) finds that some participants still express their ambiguity around their Canadian identity particularly when they struggle to access state resources. Even after having lived in their host country for over ten years, some participants are still navigating cultural citizenship with caution. For example, one participant, who has lived in Canada for over thirteen years still questions how Canadian she feels, especially in times when she is unable to find work. Quoting her participant, Creese writes:

“At the time of the interview she was searching unsuccessfully for work commensurate with her Canadian university degree, a process that has again shifted her identity. As she explained, ‘this job thing doesn’t make me feel like I belong to Canada. That’s why I am thinking, OK, I didn’t realize, maybe I am still Ugandan.’”(Creese, 2011)

For youth who arrive here at a much older stage in life, the perception that acceptance grows overtime is sometimes incorrect.”

In conclusion, the current literature on African youth in Canada is a growing field that needs further exploration. These youth ultimately learn to navigate identity in a society undergirded by white domination. Unlike, European-descended immigrant children, who usually integrate in the shortest amount of time possible (Yeboah, 2008), African immigrant youth are challenged with trying to fit themselves into host country social configurations that often do not consider their presence integral to the national fabric of their host societies (Galabuzi, 2000; Ojo, 1997; Zaami, 2012; Tettey and Puplampu, 2005; Khanlou, 2008). I argue that there is a general need to expand research to consider how youth empower themselves in the context of a very white Canada. Further, the gendered dimensions of African youth social experiences has been under-theorized in Canada. Aside from a study conducted by Okeke-Ihejirika and Spitzer in 2005, in which they interview young African women in Alberta, there is hardly any information on how the social construction of gender informs youth identity growing up in Canada. The recent phenomenon of return migration to the continent should also be explored in the Canadian context. Again, most of this literature has focused on parents’ contributions to development back home, with far too little focus on the ongoing relationship that many adult children maintain with Africa.

And finally, there is a need to disaggregate the data about continental African youth in the Diaspora and other black communities. While I do believe in the importance of using “Black” and “Blackness” to identify a particular political project and reality, it is also important to note that there are bodies for whom “black” is not a sensible, sufficient or complete label, because “black” does not have a country from which it comes, language of which it speaks nor tribe to which it belongs. But more to the point, within the context of migration research, I’d argue that it is a huge scholarly misstep to not disaggregate African youth experiences from their larger Black cohort, given what we know about the very different patterns of Diasporic migration in Canada.

Rita Afrakomah Nketiah is a second-generation Ghanaian-Canadian feminist trying to find her way home. She is currently obtaining her PhD in Women's Studies and Feminist Research and Migration and Ethnic Relations at Western University in London, Ontario, Canada.