Racism, Sexuality and Citizenship: UBC researcher examines the experiences of African immigrants to Canada from new angles


What is it like to be an immigrant to Canada? What if you also happen to be a visible minority, and belong to the LGBTQ community? “Difficult” is probably the easiest answer, but Sue Frohlick, professor of anthropology and women and gender studies at UBC Okanagan, has been looking for more in-depth answers.

In the early 2000s, Frohlick, was living in Winnipeg, working as a professor at the University of Manitoba. At the time, a significant influx of African immigrants, particularly young African immigrants, was taking place, and she watched with interest and curiosity the changing urban social landscape.

“My own kids were young at the time,” Frohlick notes, “and they would talk about the racial dynamics they were seeing around them – like interracial dating and dynamics between Asian kids and African kids, and racism at school.”

“In other words, as threatening subjects to the public,” says Frohlick.

Susan Froklick

The anthropological discipline at the time was tackling questions about migration and youth with respect to identity formation and hybridity, but had not yet looked at questions related to sexuality and settlement.

Frohlick connected with youth peer researchers, community members from local African communities and local non-governmental organizations to document the settlement experiences of racialized youth immigrants and refugees from African countries. Funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the aim of the project was to better understand the experience of immigration through a lens that takes sexuality and self-identity into account.

“Our research indicated that African youth face many challenges in the area of sexuality in their lives when they are first in Canada, including intergenerational tensions, differing cultural norms, notions of homosexuality as a western practice, power relations of many kinds – like gender, age and class – and so on,” says Frohlick.

While documenting the experiences of participants was the initial goal, the project grew to include an HIV awareness and prevention component. Frohlick’s approach to this part of the project is unique since it is not limited to considering the usual HIV risk factors, but also trying to understand how participants’ sexual lives and identities are shaped by their social, cultural, spatial, and even economic contexts.

“We want to know how HIV risk stacks up against all of the other significant challenges they face,” she explains.

As part of the current phase of the project, the team is putting together a series of HIV awareness ‘pop up’ events which use theatre games to address this question, and to convey messages that resist the idea of young African immigrants as ‘risky’ subjects.

Sue-CounsellingThese projects inspired then undergraduate student Irene Fubara-Manuel to bring another perspective to the research – that of the LGBTQ community. An international student from Nigeria who was studying at the University of Manitoba, and is a member of the LGBTQ community herself, she saw that her research interests intersected with Frohlick’s.

“Irene’s work was helpful in bringing perspectives from queer, gay and lesbian men and women from Nigerian and Zimbabwean backgrounds into the picture,” says Frohlick, “perspectives that had been missing from the research thus far.”

Fubara-Manuel used interviews, photographs and animation to create a series of Photovoice videos titled “I’m New Here.” The idea was to give voice to each individual’s experience, and highlight some of the challenges participants were facing when it came to settling in Canada.

Throughout the series, recurring themes arose, like being racially ‘othered’ by white LGBTQ people, silencing by local African communities, internalized homophobia, and the intersectional identity of black queerness.

“What we found were people just trying to build homes and a sense of belonging,” says Fubara-Manuel, “but coming across roadblocks in terms of race, in terms of their migration status, in terms of citizenship and sexuality.”

And while the goal of the project was not to solve all of these problems, bringing these stories to light is an important part of finding ways to constructively address them.

“My interest was more about giving people the space to talk about what was happening to them rather than having grand ideas about dealing with problems,” says Fubara-Manuel, “But these videos also mark a moment in time that perhaps we can look back on and ask ourselves how far we have come since then.”

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