by Jephtee Elysee
As you probably know, March 21st is the Day for Elimination of Racial Discrimination. As we celebrate this day, one may ask if such day is still relevant. After all, are not Canada and Ottawa as a country and as a city, respectively, fairly diverse and welcoming?
I believe it is a fair and important question. To answer this, I would like to share with you a personal story to underline why it is still important to raise awareness about discrimination.
End of February, one my cousins went to a neighborhood fast food restaurant and asked if she could apply for her first job (she wanted to work there since she was a kid). To her surprise, the manager told her there was an opening, took her resume, interviewed and hired her. Her training was set for the weekend before March break so that she could work on March break. She was over the moon happy to have her first job.
Now, here is what you need to know about my cousin: she was born and raised here, no accent; she is racialized (visible minority), she keeps her hair natural in a ponytail (most of the time). So this is what she looked like when she went and got that job.
There was a 2 week gap between hiring and training… 2 days before her training, she decided to get her hair done for a wedding. Being a black girl, she decided to braid her hair, using extensions. Being a teenager who likes fashion and who doesn’t get her hair “done” often, she went for it and was proud. Her aunt (my mom) told her that she should not have done it, as it may impact her new job. She said: of course it will not.
She showed up the next day at the job and the same manager told her: sorry, I cannot train you with that kind of hair; call me when you take it off.
My niece (who is still very naive/innocent) said: okay, I will call you in 2 weeks. J
When she called my mom to tell her what happened, my mom told her to call the manager right back and say she is taking her extensions off right now and will be in tomorrow. Of course, my mom knew that the job would no longer be available in 2 weeks. She followed the advice (despite complaining that it cost her $100 to do her hair and only had it for 2 days) and the manager agreed to take her back.
I was out of the country the weekend all of this unfolded. When I was told the story, these were my first questions:
- Do employees at this place wear a hair cap when handling food?
- What is the difference between white girls’ hair and black girls’ hair if it is covered anyways?
- Would she have been hired if she had those braids when she went there the first time?
Reflecting on that story broke my heart to think of all the black girls in this city who may not get a job opportunity just because of their look/hairstyle or whatever.
My point in sharing this story with you today is not to take one incident, generalize it and cry discrimination. Rather, it is to show that as a society we still have a lot of work to do. We carry our own biases as persons and we take them to the workplace. We need to check these biases as they can do more harm than we ever intended to or than we realized.
My hope is that a day will come when the “Day for Elimination of Racial Discrimination” will be irrelevant in Ottawa and in Canada as a whole (or even in the world… If I am dreaming, I might as well dream big)! In the meantime, let us continue to educate ourselves and others.
P.S.: Believe it or not, I did not point out to my cousin that she was discriminated against as I did not want to be the one to open her eyes (just yet) to the world of racial discrimination.
About the writer
Jephtée Elysée graduated with honors in commerce from the University of Ottawa. An advocate for entrepreneurship, she believes that youth should be exposed to entrepreneurship at an early age and should be encouraged to look into self-employment as an option when considering their career. She gives back to the community by mentoring youth and newcomers.