Black in Vancouver: identity hard to build, says professor

Black in Vancouver: identity hard to build, says professor

This piece is part of On The Coast's Black History Month series, "Race, Roots and Relocation: Delving into B.C.'s Black History." Check back at every day this week for more stories from B.C.'s black community.

An immigrant from Sierra Leone, Handel Wright is part of a small but growing population of people from all over Africa settling in the Lower Mainland.

Wright, a professor of educational studies and director of UBC's Centre for Culture, Identity and Education, says because those immigrants come from many different places, it's difficult to find a sense of unified black identity in B.C.

"We don't have black spaces as such. We don't have black geography, black neighbourhoods ... although some are emerging in the suburbs, New West, maybe, or Burnaby," Wright told On The Coast guest host Gloria Macarenko.

He says in Vancouver, black identity is done differently than his home country, or even Toronto, where there are more black people. He says black online communities are relied upon more here, and black people are used to giving each other what he calls "a perfunctory nod" when they see each other.

"That nod simply says … I see you, I acknowledge your presence, I recognize you as someone similar to me," he said "We might not have exactly the same history, but I see you. And you nod back and say, I see you too."

Black History Month and black identity

Wright says that while there is a lack of black spaces, there are spaces and community groups aimed at people from specific African countries, like Ghana, Uganda, Ethiopia, Somalia and his own Sierra Leone.

He says that can be a good thing because it allows people to find and be with people from their own national community.

"The problem becomes when we want to talk about a kind of pan-African, pan-black identity and groupings, then it's much harder," he said.

Wright says Black History Month is a time that makes him think about the ways people can be consciously black and build black identity.

And while he does have concerns about Black History Month being a form of tokenism — he says people joke about how blacks got the shortest month of the year for their history — he describes himself as "ambivalent" about it, and served on Mayor Gregor Robertson's Black History Month advisory council.

"I do think there's something meaningful about it. There we were at city hall, and the hall was packed full of black people, and we honoured Dr. Kojo Asante, who is a retired pediatrician, and it felt very meaningful," he said.

"So some of it can be tokenism, and the idea is whether we continue with some of that same kind of work beyond February."

To hear the full story, click the audio labelled: Many nations, but little identity: professor weighs in on black life in Vancouver