Multicultural Politics and the Paradox of Being Special: Interrogating Immigrant Women's Activism and the Voice of Difference

By Ku, Jane S. C. | Journal of International Women's Studies, May 2009 | Go to article overview
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Multicultural Politics and the Paradox of Being Special: Interrogating Immigrant Women's Activism and the Voice of Difference

Ku, Jane S. C., Journal of International Women's Studies


Interviews with racialized minority immigrant women activist-managers in immigrant service sector in Toronto, Canada demonstrate how women construct their activist identities. An antiracist postcolonial feminist framework is used to explore their narrative strategies and to show that their activist possibilities are constrained by their identities. Activism is limited to advocating for their ethnic community in multicultural politics that is structured by postcolonial "speaking" configuration that allows "native informants" to represent their communities as culturally alien and to authorize state management of racial and ethnic differences. The interviews also show the complexities of immigrant women's political agency as they navigate the limiting politics.

Keywords: activism, native informant, immigrant community organizations


I analyze third world activist immigrant women's engagement with multicultural politics in Toronto, Canada from a postcolonial feminist and antiracist perspective. Thirteen self-identified immigrant women activists spoke about their activism. These immigrant women are also managers of immigrant service organizations in Toronto, the largest and the most diverse city in Canada. Interview narratives demonstrate how they construct their identities in order to invest their speech with maximum authority and power so that they could be more credible and acknowledged more readily as they advocate for their communities. I worked in the immigrant services sector and spoke to these women in 2000. Many of these women were my colleagues, employers and friends whom I respected and admired for their dedication, hard work and sharp analysis. I learned much about feminist and multicultural politics from them and would have remained there had my academic pursuit not taken me to a different direction. I write this article to show their complex navigation of their relatively privileged role in this sector.

The "immigrant services sector" or the "settlement sector" is made up of numerous immigrant community-based organizations funded by state agencies (most notably, Citizenship and Immigration Canada) to support immigrant newcomers' integration into Canadian society (Beyene et al, 1996; Richmond, 1996; Richmond and Shields, 2005; Social Planning Council of Metropolitan Toronto, 1996). I have also included here those organizations targeted at ethnoracial groups even though their primary service focus is not "settlement". Language training and information provision are keys to settlement service provision for newcomers to Canada. Ethnic matching of workers with service users or "ethno-specific" service provision is considered superior in minimizing the effects of Eurocentric biases in mainstream organizations (Das Gupta, 1999; Reitz, 1995; Weinfeld, 1999). The argument that ethnoracial people understand their own communities better than mainstream organizations counters Eurocentric, racist and ineffective services and philosophy (Beyene et al, 1996). However, this led to a culturalized discourse towards serving immigrants which relies on cultural interpreters to mediate between the Canadian state and the newcomers who are mostly from third world countries. The culturalization of service has been critiqued as a denial of racism and racialization (Jiwani 2005).

In this space, immigrant women from third world countries are positioned as advocates and representatives of their ethnic communities by virtue of their cultural proximity to their communities, and negotiate with state and funding agencies to access resources for their respective ethnic communities. Thus, many of these community organizations are ethno-specific, or match services and personnel with the clients. Ethnospecific organizations are usually smaller and serve a particular ethnic group; they are often founded by people in that community sometimes with "mainstream" activist support.

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Multicultural Politics and the Paradox of Being Special: Interrogating Immigrant Women's Activism and the Voice of Difference


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