'I declined a job offer after months of unemployment solely because they commented on my afro'

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Illustration. (Getty Images)
Illustration. (Getty Images)
  • The impact of Covid-19 and the consequent economic effects of South Africa has led to a severe unemployment rate of 31 percent. 
  • *Sethu, 29, was among the many South Africans who experienced retrenchment in 2020 due to the pandemic.
  • However, Sethu declined a job offer solely because of a comment made about her hair by an advertising agency that had just hired her. 
  • Here, she shares her story with Wandile Jama.

The South African economy shed 2.2 million jobs in the second quarter of 2020 and many South Africans are stressed about finding a new job in the current economic climate. Sethu, 29, was among the many South Africans who experienced retrenchment in 2020 due to the pandemic.

After job-hunting for almost four months, the social media manager had finally landed an interview with one of the country’s leading advertising agencies and received the job offer after a strenuous interview process.

However, Sethu declined the job offer solely because of a comment they made about her hair.

This is her story: 

I know a lot of people are going to think I’m ungrateful - given our current economic climate - but I just want to put it out there that no amount of money or benefits can buy you a good state of mind.

Your mental health is important and it should be top priority. 

When I got retrenched, I was obviously disappointed and stressed a bit but I wasn’t devastated. I knew a greater opportunity would come my way and that everything happens for a reason. When I was job hunting, I was very specific about the type of company I want to work for and the type of people I wanted as colleagues.

I’ve worked in extremely toxic workplaces and it affected my mental health to a point where I was diagnosed with clinical depression.

READ MORE: 'I love my natural hair but my mom hates it – and it’s racist'  

At the last stage of the interview process, both potential line managers made a slight remark about my 4C kinky afro, saying; "Is that your hair? It’s so big. Does it take long to brush? How will you manage to be on time for work everyday?" 

They said this giggling and thought it was a joke, but it was at that moment I knew that I wouldn’t want to expose myself to workplace microaggressions.

My response to the racial micro-aggression was; "my hair is not a reflection of my punctuality and my work ethic. I’ve worn my hair like this for years and it has never been a problem." 

I received my job offer a week after but I knew I had to decline it. This may appear as an 'on the surface' comment, but black women have had to assimilate to white standards of beauty and professionalism for a very long time.

Racial microaggressions at work not only affect your self-esteem but your mental health as well. They are usually subtle, yet the intentional racial biases and stereotypes make it hard for black people to get jobs on merit or advance their careers.   

READ MORE: ‘I’m scared my boss might see my tweets, that’s why I can’t participate in Black Lives Matter’ 

And I’ve noticed that black women who wish to succeed in the workplace feel compelled to undertake costly, time-consuming, and harsh measures to conform their natural hair to a stereotyped look of professionalism that mimics the appearance of white women’s hair. 

I am currently freelancing, but I don’t regret my decision.

As I said, my mental health is important to me and I can’t afford to be exposed to triggers which could potentially lead to being diagnosed with clinical depression again. 

*Name has been changed

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