Professionalism as a concept is a form of white supremacy. No one knows this better than people of colour who work in predominantly white spaces.
Defined as the conduct, aims, or qualities that characterize or mark a profession or a professional person, professionalism evidently is a metric that rests upon the idea that whiteness and Western values are a benchmark that non-white professionals must adhere to.
This creates a racial hierarchy that results in both covert and blatant acts of policing people of colour in order to be recognized as a legitimate members in the workplace.
This policing is essentially a way to dilute POC of qualities inherent to their cultural identities.
Black women are one prime example of this, as they are often subjected to discrimination in the workplace for their natural hair.
“A 2020 Duke University study found that Black women with natural hairstyles were perceived to be less professional and less competent, and were less likely to be recommended for job interviews than their white counterparts. Even among Black women, those with natural hairstyles were rated as less professional than Black applicants with straightened hair.”
Discrimination against Black women has and continues to be such a rampant issue in North America that in 2019, the “CROWN Act”, was a law passed in the state of California to prevent race-based discrimination that would infringe an individual’s employment because of their natural hair.
Issues with discriminatory practices towards workplace attire is also a critical issue, especially with regards to the wearing of religious items.
Baltej Singh Dhillon is one of the more historical examples who in 1983 fought for his right to wear his turban and beard and became the first person to do so as an officer with the RCMP. While Dhillon’s victory was unprecedented, it was not the conclusive act to quell any further instances of cultural discrimination in Canada’s workforce.
As recently as April of this year, a Quebec court ruled in favour of prohibiting the wearing of turbans, hijabs and other religious garments amongst government workers
Public backlash on this ruling revolved around the imminent burden this would place on women who wear a hijab, and how this decision would hinder opportunities for professional advancement.
This is one of the more public battles that racialized people are facing, but there are also the more constant battles POC face in their day-to-day lives at work.
Even the way they speak is policed, as POC are encouraged to curb their accents, and be wary of the use of colloquialisms.
Amneet Mann of 5X Press recently wrote about Global news anchor Neetu Garcha’s public service announcement that she will stop anglicizing her name as an act of decentralizing whiteness from her life. This was a way to put her comfort at the forefront as opposed to feeling obligated to provide comfort to white people.
When white people are dismissive of pronouncing ethnic names correctly, it is a form of a microaggression. Another common example of a microaggression goes back to the example of Black women who wear their hair in its natural texture and will often have coworkers that ask to touch their hair.
Touching another coworker is inappropriate, especially without their explicit consent, so the act of wanting to touch someone’s hair should be seen as equally inappropriate.
The issue goes even further than just asking to touch an individual's hair or lack of effort to pronounce a name correctly when it is coupled with common retorts from white colleagues that claim innocence in their actions. You know, because they’re “just not used to ethnic names and features.”
It can then be difficult as a POC to safeguard yourself from these comments, especially when you are one of the few racialized people in your working environment, so you don’t become the “problem” or “angry” one in the work environment -- which are common stereotypes.
Protecting yourself against everyday microaggressions in a system that already establishes whiteness as the precedent in professional spaces can feel like a lose-lose situation.
While many workplaces purport values of diversity and inclusion, these measures tend to be shallow. Addressing the emotional needs of workers and mitigating workplace hostilities can be a time costly endeavour, and can deter from the productivity of the workplace.
We then see that it is in the best interests of a company to instead neutralize the situation, but this often means protecting the aggressor as opposed to the individual or group on the receiving end of a derogatory act or comment.
So, if not asked formally by their employer, POC tend to understand and are conditioned to push down their emotions and feelings in the interest of a cohesive work environment.
White professional spaces can thus be an isolating environment for POC.
To combat this, professionalism and systems that uphold standards of whiteness need to be re-conceptualized, to move past surface-level diversity and inclusion, towards genuinely creating a safe space for POC.
About the author: Reya Rana is a UBC grad who studied Poli Sci and English language. She is really interested in writing and reading rhetorical analyses, and she enjoys all kinds of music, fashion and books that make her cry. Her pronouns are she/her. Follow her on Twiter @ReyaRana10
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