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Including the Excluded: De-Marginalizing Immigrant/Refugee and Racialized Students

Youth's personal and social identities affect how our young people see themselves, how they are perceived by educators and school peers, how they engage with schooling, and how they produce knowledge about everyday experiences. Social exclusion based on shared identities disproportionately affects youth whose “otherness” is most apparent. If we are to equip all learners with the tools to function in contemporary society, we must bring a critical understanding to youth marginality and resistance … and then act upon it. To do this we need to acknowledge both their social and personal identities, listen attentively to their voices, seek to address unique needs associated with social location, and understand the sources of their resistance or protest. Most of all we need to unfailingly recognize the inherent potential in each learner and ever strive to see this potential fully realized.

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Identities, Identification, and Marginalization

Why do Identities Matter?

Identity is about connection with others. It is about a sense of rootedness to particular places, cultures, histories, contexts, and politics. It is also about comparisons based on perceived similarities and differences, and the concomitant demarcation through identity construction and negotiation of social boundaries that serve to either include or exclude individuals and groups from access to social resources and statuses.

For young people, the development of their identities as unique individuals is an integral part of their identity formation across the developmental trajectory. This process occurs within societal contexts that seek to include, marginalize, or exclude both individuals and the social groups to which they are seen to belong. Various cultural, racial, religious, linguistic, national, age, sex/gender, socio-economic (class), territorial, and other identification criteria are used in these personal and social identification processes, all of which reflect various types of commonality or difference deemed socially salient at the time. The corresponding identity “markers” serve at once to affirm oneself and the relevant collectivity, while simultaneously demarcating “I – you” and “we – they” boundaries. The resulting personal and social identities may be myriad and complex; they may intersect or overlap; they are in constant flux, as they are constructed, negotiated, and sometimes even contested. They may also intersect with disadvantaged minority statuses in ways that either intensify oppressions and marginality or empower individuals to work for social change and transformation.[1]

Youth's personal and social identities are critically important in the learning process. They affect not only how our young people see themselves, but also how they are perceived by both educators and school peers, how they engage with schooling, and how they themselves produce knowledge about everyday experiences. This begs the questions: What role do we play as educators and education researchers in these identification processes? How does the way that we see – or don't see – the personal identities and lived social realities of our students affect them, particularly in their learning and educational outcomes? What might be our own complicities in processes of social inclusion or exclusion of our students, particularly of our culturally diverse and/or racialized youth? How does this impact them? How might we best understand students' responses accordingly? Most importantly, what can we do to break existing patterns of social dislocation and marginalization to ensure the educational success ­– and associated life outcomes – of all of our students?

Marginalization is a process, not a label – a process of social de-valuation that serves to justify disproportional access to scarce societal resources.  As social actors, we do this to others.

What is Marginalization? Who Does It? To Whom?

The word “margin” comes to us from the Latin word margo, meaning “edge”, and with time has come to also convey a sense of “little effect or importance”.[2] “To marginalize” is an active verb; it is something that is done by someone to someone else. In the case of “marginalized” students, it is educators, teachers, along with other adults and peers, who – through their identifications, their “seeing” and “not-seeing”, their social inclusion or exclusion – relegate certain individuals and social groups toward the edge of the societal boundary, away from the core of import. Marginalization is thus a process, not a label – a process of social de-valuation that serves to justify disproportional access to scarce societal resources. As social actors, we do this to others. Because of our own agency, we can also change this.  

“we’re relegated to this label and there's no way to move out of it...”**

What characterizes the experiences of a child who is so excluded? How exactly does marginalization occur? Who are the marginalized youth so affected? Are some more likely than others to experience social devaluation, invisibility, silencing, unresponsiveness, and inaction?

A marginalized child is a child

  • whose social location is not understood and whose identities are contested or denied;
  • whose life circumstances are not known and not considered;
  • whose voice is not heard or has been silenced;
  • whose needs have been left unfulfilled;
  • whose promise is not recognized and whose protest is ignored.

In theory, social exclusion or inclusion via recognition or denial of shared commonalities may affect any child. In practice, they disproportionately affect youth sub-populations whose “otherness” is most apparent. These social “others” include our newcomer immigrant/refugee, ethno-culturally diverse, and racialized students.     

Contested Identities

Why is it important to look at identity, identification, and marginalization among newcomer, immigrant/refugee, and/or racialized students? The answer is threefold. First, our educational system and structures need to be responsive to changes in the composition of Canadian society. Second, diverse youth sub-populations may face unique challenges that affect their educational trajectories and thus have distinct needs. Third, identification processes – particularly for contested identities – affect learning, and thereby the educational performance and associated life outcomes of our youth.

Increasing Societal Diversity and Complexity

Canadian society is becoming increasingly complex along cultural, linguistic, and racial lines. One in five of all Canadian children under the age of 15 is a new immigrant or a refugee. An increasingly significant youth sub-population in Canada, immigrant and refugee youth are culturally diverse, with backgrounds reflecting any of 247 diverse ethno-cultural origins[3] as well as various world regions in Asia, the Caribbean, South and Central America, the Middle East, and Africa.

Almost three quarters (73 percent) of immigrants who arrived between 2001 and 2006 are members of diverse visible minority populations. These new migrants join longer established racialized populations that include our African and Asian Canadian communities as well as our aboriginal First Nations peoples. It is estimated that by 2016 Canada’s visible minority population will account for one fifth of the total population – and one quarter of all of Canada's children. These figures are already much higher in larger urban centres; it is estimated that close to half of all elementary and secondary school students living in Toronto are from racialized minority populations. The majority are first- and second-generation immigrants and refugees from Asia, the Caribbean, South and Central America, and Africa.[4]

Unique Challenges Faced by Each Youth Population

Both immigrant/refugee and racialized youth face unique challenges when compared to their school peers, challenges that extend well beyond those associated with the mastery of the curriculum content and requirements. Newcomer immigrant and refugee youth grapple not only with learning a new language but also with numerous resettlement stresses. The latter include difficult migration experiences and trajectories, linguistic barriers, acculturation difficulties, adaptation challenges, and experiences of social isolation. A key resettlement challenge often faced by newcomer families is the difficult labour market integration of the parents, including parental unemployment, underemployment, and/or double shift work, stressors that readily translate into financial distress, parental absences, and the concomitant need for young newcomer youth to assume adult roles and responsibilities at home. At school, non-recognition of prior schooling, interruptions or changes in schooling, differential educational levels, lack of familiarity with the Canadian school system and practices, mismatches between home-school cultural values, and unwelcoming school environments often present additional challenges for these students.[5]

"I never thought I'm gonna skip, quit school and stuff, but the way [the Principal] was to me, he was never like that to other people you know”*

Many immigrant and refugee students, moreover, do not speak the language of instruction as their mother tongue and/or speak a heritage language at home. In Toronto alone, close to half of secondary students are non-native English speakers; a full two-thirds of these are recent newcomers who speak English as a second language.[6] In all, between 20 and 50 percent of the school population in Canada's large urban centres are non-English speakers. Linguistic mastery of an official language by newcomer students is essential to student learning, social integration, academic performance, and successful transition into the Canadian labour force. The risk of early school leaving prior to high school completion for English-as-a-Second-Language students is two to three times higher than it is for other youth.[7]

"The main problem was my language."*

Our racialized visible minority youth, both newcomer and Canadian-born, grapple with negative societal messages and stereotypes, negative school climates that alienate minority students, negative student-administrator relationships, unfair/arbitrary/ineffective discipline systems, inequitable school structures and systems, as well as a school curriculum that does not reflect their lived realities and experiences. These visible-minority students are furthermore over-represented in families from the lower socio-economic bracket – 63 percent versus 38 percent for “non-visible” populations[8] – and need also to cope with the attendant risks and challenges associated with access to fewer resources, poverty, and social-stigmatization.

"Teachers…they seen the skin colour, they want to pick on you. I think the main issue those people pick on me is because of my skin."*

Marginalized Identities and Learning

How do identities affect learning? Are there links between various marginalized identities and educational outcomes?

Identity is an important site of knowing. It is, in effect, a lens through which one reads and responds to one’s world. Young learners understand everyday issues in their homes and communities in terms of who they are, who they are seen to be, where they feel they belong and are allowed to belong. They make sense of and assign meaning to these lived experiences in ways that are very much connected to their particular histories and realized within societal contexts and social spaces. It is precisely for this reason that minority learners often lament the absence of diversity in teacher representation within their schools, indicating there is something beyond educators’ knowledge, skills, and capacities that is important to the teacher-student dyad. The background of an educator is as relevant as that of the learner in making sense of knowledge and teaching and learning.[9] We all speak from particular social locations, experiences, and histories; this is true of our students, and it is true of us as educators as well. Not to recognize this fact is to “push into the margins” the lived realities and life prospects of those who are “not like us”.  

"[The students of the school are] mostly Black right now…the teachers mostly White."*

The existing research literature clearly points to differential educational outcomes both across different immigrant and refugee populations and between foreign-born and Canadian-born children and youth. Research exploring issues in minority youth education reveals that students themselves point to connections between identity, representation, schooling, and knowledge production, and that the need to feel connected to school and to identify with the curricular, instructional, and pedagogical practices that they find there is critical to their educational success.[10] A school system that fails to recognize and tap into youth’s myriad identities and most salient identifications as valuable sources of knowledge is one that shortchanges learners.

"They assessed me wrong, because they put me in … Grade Ten, right, and I was supposed to be in Grade Twelve."*

" I didn't really feel like I belonged."*

Complicities and Responses

As educators and education researchers, we need to ask ourselves about our own complicities in the selective de-centering, dislocating, and fragmenting of youth identities. What do we do to marginalize our own students, through our “self-other” identifications, representations, and selective dislocation? How can we best understand student responses accordingly? What is it that we don’t do – or haven’t yet thought to do – to create and sustain an educational system that is more truly inclusive of all of our children?

Understanding Student Responses: Resistance, Resilience, and Re-Valuation

Our failures to tap into the rich histories and community reservoirs of knowledge resident in our learners often leads to a desire and push, particularly among minority students, to reclaim their own cultural, racial, and/or religious identities and associated “ways of knowing”. Such strategic claims for plurality and difference in marginalized spaces within schooling and education constitute political forms of youth resistance to pressures for conformity, sameness, and mainstreaming. To better understand youth resistance to their marginality and concomitant agency to produce change, it is therefore necessary to situate their responses in the “cultural politics of schooling”.

They resist and respond as and where they can…this resistance often takes various forms of protest and affirmation of lived experiences, cultures, histories, and social realities … a re-valuation of precisely those identities being contested.

It is important to understand how youth understand, articulate, and respond to their marginality and why they do so. Students who have been effectively marginalized can often readily identify those moments that negate their self, personhood, and collective identities. They are also very much aware that processes of inclusion and exclusion are organized through particular identities, and that these processes not only affect them as individuals but extend beyond to the population categories or social groups with which they are identified and/or themselves identify. Many minority students are moreover very much in tune with the “politics of representation”, as well as attempts to individualize processes of exclusion in ways that effectively hamper their articulation of a shared, collective experience about schooling that is itself often muted, negated, dismissed, or de-legitimized. We cannot understand marginality outside the context of minority youth students’ resistance and resilience that seeks to reclaim newcomer, visible minority, or aboriginal identities as political and subversive. They resist and respond as and where they can. In the context of every day marginalization and marginality, this resistance often takes various forms of protest and affirmation of lived experiences, cultures, histories, and social realities … a re-valuation of precisely those identities being contested.

"The teachers …don’t treat me the same as Portuguese people. I wouldn't say racist because there are Black people there too. They just don't like new people … a new kind of race coming in."*

Educator Responses: Including the Excluded

If we are to equip all learners with the requisite tools to function in contemporary society, the issue of marginality and youth resistance in education must be fully addressed. As educators, we must bring a critical understanding to youth marginality and resistance … and then act upon it. To do this we need to better understand, consider, and respond to the social location and life circumstances of our diverse students. We need to acknowledge both their social and personal identities, listen attentively to their voices, seek to address unique needs associated with social location, and understand the sources of their resistance or protest. Most of all we need to unfailingly recognize the inherent potential in each learner and ever strive to see this potential fully realized.  

"The role teachers have cannot be underestimated. Just having some kind of approval... that kind of affirmation goes a long way.”**

For our newcomer immigrant and refugee students, this means understanding that mastery of the language of instruction is critical. Migration and resettlement stresses can also present daily challenges, particularly for recent newcomers. The need for both parents to work long hours, often at multiple jobs, can readily translate into less parental presence and supervision, as well as increased responsibility for care of younger siblings and household tasks; parental underemployment can in turn lead to the need for youth employment to help support the family. Teachers, principals, vice-principals, counselors, and school staff who understand these unique challenges can more effectively support their students in their educational trajectories. Initiatives that make a real difference include: assessment and recognition of previous academic accomplishments; strong, secure, sustained English-as-a-Second-Language programming; administrator, teacher, staff awareness training; facilitation of integration within the school; support linkages to relevant social and/or resettlement services; outreach to parents and communities; and implementation of cultural competence within the classroom. For older students, school flexibility in terms of balancing family/work/home/school responsibilities is often key to ensuring successful educational outcomes.

"You do better when you have more support from home. My parents try but they're new to this country also, and it's hard for them and they have problems of their own."*

For our racialized visible minority students, an educational curriculum that is relevant to lived experiences and reflective of diversity is key. School programming needs to be sophisticated enough to allow students to engage the complexities of their daily existence. Rather than devalue or diminish the social histories, identities, experiences, and cultural or collective knowledge that our students bring with them to school, we need instead to incorporate them directly into the learning process itself.[11] Inclusive programming that reflects social histories, identities, and experiences with which they can relate allows each learner to feel not only welcome, but a true sense of deep belonging. Other factors that make a real difference include: anti-discrimination awareness, training, and strategies; a positive, inclusive school ethos; a climate of mutual respect between teachers and students; supportive principals, vice-principals, teachers, counselors, and school staff; building upon youth's own hopes and aspirations.[12]

"I was just mostly lonely.*

Identifications based on race, culture, language, religion, class, and gender and their representations in schooling point to particular embodiments of being, social existence, and thus knowledge production. By recognizing that learners’ identities are important not only to understanding the complexities of our world today but also to the actual learning process itself, we can help to ensure better educational outcomes for all our youth. What will you do?

This article is based on papers originally presented at the “Marginalized Youth and Contemporary Educational Contexts” hosted by the Community Health Systems Resource Group, The Hospital for Sick Children, 2009.

*For source of student comment, see reference cited in endnote 12.

**For source of student comment, see reference cited in endnote 9.

EN BREF - L’identité personnelle et sociale des jeunes se répercute sur leur façon de se voir, sur la manière dont ils sont perçus par les éducateurs et leurs pairs à l’école, sur leur engagement scolaire et sur la façon dont ils produisent des savoirs par suite d’expériences de tous les jours. L’exclusion sociale fondée sur des identités partagées affecte de manière disproportionnée les jeunes dont l’altérité est la plus évidente. Si nous voulons fournir à tous les jeunes les outils nécessaires pour fonctionner dans notre société contemporaine, nous devons acquérir une compréhension critique de la marginalité et de la résistance des jeunes… puis y donner suite. Pour ce faire, nous devons reconnaître leurs identités sociales et personnelles, écouter attentivement leurs voix, chercher à répondre aux besoins particuliers découlant de leur lieu social et comprendre les sources de leur résistance ou de leurs protestations. Et surtout, nous devons reconnaître sans faute le potentiel inhérent de chaque apprenant et constamment nous efforcer d’atteindre pleinement ce potentiel.


[1] J. A. Rummens, “Identity and Diversity: Overlaps, Intersections and Processes,” Canadian Ethnic Studies 35 (no. 3, Special Issue: Intersections of Diversity): 2003:10-25.

[2] On-line Etymology Dictionary. www.etymonline.com

[3] National population statistics are from the 2006 Canadian census.

[4] M. Cheng and M. Yau, The 1997 Every Secondary Student Survey: Detailed Findings #230 (Toronto: Toronto District School Board, 1999).

[5] J. A. Rummens, K. Tilleczek, K. Boydell, and B. Ferguson, “Understanding and Addressing Early School Leaving Among Immigrant and Refugee Youth,” in Why Do Students Drop Out of High School? Narrative Studies and Social Critiques, ed. Kate Tilleczek (Edwin Mellen Press, 2008), 75-101.

[6] Cheng and Yau.  

[7] People for Education, Quick Facts – Support for ESL Students (Toronto, 2006). Accessed in 2008 from www.peopleforeducation.com

[8] Cheng and Yau.

[9] G. J. S. Dei with Alana Butler, Gulzar Charania, Anthony Kola-Olusanya, Bathseba Opini, Roslyn Thomas, and Anne Wagner, Learning to Succeed: The Challenges and Possibilities of Educational Development for All (New York: Teneo Press, 2010).

[10] G. J. S. Dei, L. Holmes, J. Mazzuca, E. McIsaac and R. Campbell, Push Out or Drop Out? The Dynamics of Black Students’ Disengagement from School. Final report submitted to the Ontario Ministry of Education and Training, Toronto, 1995; G. J. S. Dei, J. Mazzuca, E. McIsaac, and J. Zine, Reconstructing ‘Dropout’ (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997).

[11] G. J. S. Dei, M. James, Sonia James-Wilson, L. Karumanchery, and J. Zine, Removing the Margins: The Challenges and Possibilities of Inclusive Schooling (Toronto: Canadian Scholars' Press, 2000); G. J. S. Dei, S. James-Wilson, and J. Zine, Inclusive Schooling: A Teacher’s Companion to Removing the Margins (Toronto: Canadian Scholars' Press, 2002).

[12] B. Ferguson, K. Tilleczek, K. Boydell, Joanna Anneke. Rummens, Dara Roth Edney, and Daniel Coté, Early School Leavers: Understanding the Lived Reality of Student Disengagement from Secondary School (Ontario Ministry of Education, May 30, 2005). www.educ.gov.on.ca/eng/parents/schoolleavers.pdf