What self-identifying as black means for these young Torontonians

Regardless of nationality, ethnicity, origin or background — more than half of the Greater Toronto Area's black community identifies as black, according to the Black Experience Project, research that's been nearly seven years in the making.

7-year study shows generational shift in how Toronto's black community identifies

Regardless of nationality, ethnicity, origin or background — more than half of the Greater Toronto Area's black community identifies as black, according to the Black Experience Project, research that's been nearly seven years in the making.

Identifying as black, over all other ethnic markers

The study involved more than 1,500 interviews with self-identified black residents in the GTA, addressing issues of identity, racism, police interactions and community involvement.

The data shows a clear generational shift in how the black community identifies, with participants 55 and older identifying specifically by ethnicity — mostly Caribbean — whereas those 34 and under identified simply as black.

The difference may "reflect the politics of the younger generation, who regardless of their origin choose to identify in this way," read the report.

Fowzia Duale says identity is complex. (CBC)

Harder than you think: identify yourself in just one way

The survey had more than 250 questions and left 40 questions open-ended, said Fowzia Duale Virtue, one of the interviewees and now current project coordinator for the Black Experience Project.

One of those open-ended questions was "how do you racially identify?" to which Fowzia automatically wanted to answer that she's black, African and Somali — something her interviewer pushed back against.

"I wanted to not simplify who I was," she said, but eventually identified herself as black.

"Blackness for me ultimately gave me a wider space to connect with people across Canada and globally … people who were beyond the African ethno-specific identity that I have roots in," she added.

"And so I said, my African heritage and identity will come under my umbrella of blackness."

When the results of the report came in, she said she was both surprised and delighted that one in two participants also chose black, which to her meant there is "a foundation that's solid enough for people to feel like they can always return and always have a sense of home in being black in the GTA."

Miatta Gorvie says although black people are not homogeneous, there is a sense of community. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

​Black identity: community and its importance

"I remember growing up and seeing my parents nodding at other black people or smiling, and I was like 'who's that'? We never knew them, but I think that points to something," said Miatta Gorvie, a legal educator from Winnipeg, whose parents are from Kenya and Sierra Leone.

They built a makeshift family for themselves with other African immigrants and created their own community, shaping Gorvie's identity. 

"My uncles, aunties and cousins were from Nigeria, Mozambique, Zambia, South Africa and all over the place," said Gorvie of the phenomenon. 

One of the responsibilities of being part of the larger black community is "organizing around the political identity around blackness" to fight back against anti-black racism in the world, she said.

But despite identifying as black, she said the term can be "flattening."

"Even if they find out I'm African or even if they find out where my parents are from, there's not much investigation of what that means and that does mean something."

"I love being in Africa because there I'm not a black person. We're all black. You can kind of just be who you are, and people will judge you on other social markers," she explained.  

Arden Maaliq identifies as black politically, but culturally as Trinidadian. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

The politics of being black

"The first thing they see when they see me is not my ethnicity, right. They don't know I'm Trinidadian. For all they know, I could be from Zimbabwe," said Arden Maaliq, a Toronto-based artist.

Culturally, he's from Trinidad, but he said that identity is erased when he leaves his home.

"I mean, racially and politically, I identify as black and that's what shapes my experiences in Toronto more than anything. From my skin colour, my hair, my facial features, it's black. It's not Trinidadian, it's black."

But in identifying as black, comes the weight of dealing with discrimination.

"When you're politicized constantly, you just get so fed up. Everything that you do is politicized. The people you date, what you eat, where you go to," said Maaliq.

"The experiences are largely similar around the world. Living as a black person in many places in this world, you're going to be discriminated against."

Derka Ali-Best is ethnically Somali and Trinidadian, but frequently gets asked if she's Jamaican. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

Identity is complex

For journalism student Derka Ali-Best, being black shaped some of her earliest memories.

"I was very shy as a kid because I felt like I couldn't be myself 100 per cent," she said.

"I felt really different compared to everyone else," she said. "When I would go to the store and I'd want to buy a doll, I'd never find one that looked like me."

She identifies as Trinidadian, Somali and black — finding it difficult to see herself as only one. Growing up, her mother played soca music at home and she was immersed in both cultures. But despite being connected to her culture, she still felt pressured to look a certain way.

"Everyone had straight hair and I'd always be like 'Mom, I just want my hair to be straight. Why is my hair so curly," said Ali-Best. 

She frequently experiences people assuming her cultural background. 

"People would always be like 'Oh, are you Jamaican?' because that would be the only culture that, I guess, they would associate with being black."

Study hopes to act as tool 

The Black Experience Project was launched in 2010 and surveyed people from the city of Toronto and the regions of York, Durham, Peel and Halton. It was led by the Environics Institute for Survey research, in partnership with the United Way of Toronto and York, the YMCA of the GTA, Ryerson's Diversity Institute and the Jean Augustine Chair in Education, Community and Diaspora at York University.

Read the full report here.