Groundbreaking project explores Black experience in the GTA

Joseph Junior Smith said the findings of the Black Experience Project speak to his own experience as a young Black man in the city.


Whenever he is asked about his racial identity, Carl James always says “Black” instead of Antiguan, especially in Canada, where race is often defined by skin colour.

But there is more to the York University education professor’s preferred response to the question.

“I generally see myself as a Black person who happens to be from the Caribbean,” said James, who came to Toronto in the 1970s as a university student.

“It’s the politics about being Black that we are thinking in skin-colour terms. That’s the way we have come to define and see ourselves in our struggles.”

He is not alone in feeling that way.

According to the Black Experience Project, a groundbreaking survey of 1,504 self-identified Black individuals in Greater Toronto, 53 per cent of the participants identified themselves as Black regardless of their heritage, country of origin, and ethnocultural and other identities.

The participants were sampled to represent the population across census tracts, taking into account age, gender household income and ethnic/cultural backgrounds.

The study led by the Environics Institute, released Wednesday, posed 250 questions to participants about their daily experiences as Black people in the GTA. Most interviews were conducted in person and each took between 90 to 120 minutes.

“What struck me is how the experience of the Black community is so similar,” said Marva Wisdom, the project’s director of outreach engagement, whose family moved here from Jamaica 40 years ago.

 York University professor Carl James says he sees himself as "a Black person who happens to be from the Caribbean ... It’s the politics about being Black that we are thinking in skin-colour terms."

“Being Black is an important identity for us despite our diversity. It is our shared experiences that help bind us together.”

Black people make up 400,000, or 7 per cent, of Greater Toronto’s population and the community has more than tripled in size over the last three decades.

Until 2011, young Black adults living in GTA were much more likely to be born in the Caribbean than in Canada, but the trend has reversed. Black youth today are twice as likely to be born in Canada than in the Caribbean, while those from Africa have been on the rise.

While people with Caribbean heritage make up 55 per cent of GTA’s Black population, those with African origins now account for 31 per cent of the community, with the rest being a mix of both and/or with other ethnicities.

The study also found:

  • Two-thirds of survey participants said they frequently or occasionally experience racism and discrimination because they are Black;

  • Eight in 10 reported experiencing one of several forms of day-to-day “microaggression” such as having others expect their work to be inferior or being treated in a condescending or superficial way;

  • Although those with lower incomes are affected more intensively by these incidents, when it comes to getting randomly stopped in public by the police, those in the higher socio-economic stratum are not immune;

  • About four respondents in 10 said they felt accepted by their teachers “only sometimes” or “never”;

  • One-third identified challenges in the workplace linked to being Black, whether those involved explicit racism or discrimination, or an uncomfortable workplace culture in which they do not feel they are treated professionally accepted.

“Teenagers growing up feel they’re experiencing all these things on their own. You feel you have to work hard to prove Blackness is a positive thing. Now we can confirm and validate our experiences with data,” Wisdom said.

“There have been incremental changes, but things haven’t changed that much, either.”

Wisdom remembers that as a teenage girl, she was misguided by a high school counsellor to take general math rather than advanced math, delaying her university education. She ultimately graduated from college and returned to university as a mature student, obtaining a master’s degree while raising three kids.

Despite reaching higher educational attainment than earlier generations, Canadian-born Black people were more likely to say they were victims of racism than were their immigrant counterparts and were more likely to identify that racism as an obstacle.

Four in five male participants between the ages of 25 and 44 said they had been stopped in a public place by the police and three in five said they said they had been harassed or treated rudely by police.

Joseph Junior Smith, who was born in Canada to Jamaican parents and grew up in the Jane and Finch corridor, said the report findings speak to his own experience as a young Black man in the city.

The 28-year-old teacher was only 6 when he was stopped by the police for the first time while playing in a courtyard. The most recent incident just happened two months ago, when he and a group of teenagers from Generation Chosen, a youth program he founded, were stopped on Hwy. 407 on their way to play paintball in Scarborough.

Smith said they were handcuffed and searched after someone reported seeing one of the group members with a rifle, which was actually a paintball gun.

“You are attempting to do the right thing but still can’t escape the gaze of police officers,” said Smith, who is pursuing a doctoral degree in humanities at York University. “Why is it so hard to believe we’re not criminal, that we are just regular citizens?”

Like others who participated in the survey, Smith said he tries to overcome these hurdles and stereotypes by working twice as hard, getting involved with the community and through higher education.

Four in five survey participants said they belong to at least one community group, a rate that is higher than the Canadian average. One in two also belongs to, or participates in, organizations or informal social groups that specifically address the interests of the Black community.

James, the university professor, said most people in the Black community rely on community activism and education to overcome hurdles, adversities and stereotypes.

“Racism still exists and now takes different forms,” said James, who sits on the advisory committee of the Black Experience Project. “Its subtleties then and now are different.”

The project, started in 2011, was a joint partnership with the Diversity Institute at Ryerson University, United Way, YMCA and York University. It was funded by TD Group; Ontario Trillium Foundation; the Province of Ontario; the Regions of Peel, Durham and York; Durham and York police services; and the Toronto Police Services Board.

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