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Examining the Concept of “Professionalism” and Its Roots in Racism, Sexism, and Classism

Written By: Dr. Sheva Guy



Patience. Resilience. Time. Commitment. Reliability. Creativity. Innovation. Discomfort at times. This is what it takes to become an expert at what you do. These are also the traits that you need for any successful body modification (tattoos, piercings, etc). I always say that what I look like has zero bearing on my professionalism, competency, and expertise. But that’s not true. These traits overlap. I am covered in tattoos. I have 13 piercings. My ears are gauged. And guess what? I’m still intelligent, innovative, and damn amazing at what I do. What I look like does not change that.


...why?

  • Do my tattoos tell you anything about my education or credentials?

  • Does a tank top versus a suit speak to the work I do?

  • Do quirky heart-shaped sunglasses mean I won't take my commitments seriously?

  • Does wearing a hat demonstrate that I am not invested in my business?

  • Do my nose piercing and gauged ears have anything to do with my deliverables?

NOPE.


Let’s explore why professionalism is a racist, sexist, classist, ableist, homophobic, and transphobic construct.

The term "professionalism" has infiltrated our everyday lives, governing how we present ourselves, communicate, and behave within various professional contexts. But beneath the surface of this seemingly innocuous concept lies historical biases and discriminatory practices. The insidious rules dictating professional dress codes, language, and demeanor covertly perpetuate inequality along the lines of race, gender, and class.


Beneath the veneer of professionalism lies a hierarchy deeply rooted in the standards and values of white maleness, effectively placing these attributes on a pedestal above all others. Professionalism, therefore, marginalizes individuals of color, women, those with disabilities, and members of the LGBTQ+ community, and reinforces the belief that only those who conform to these entrenched ideals are deserving of success within professional spheres. Closer examination reveals that professionalism, rather than being a neutral term, has been wielded by the white supremacist elite to maintain their hold over workers, particularly those who have historically borne the brunt of discrimination and oppression.


Dress Codes & Oppression


Dress codes have long been touted as guidelines for appropriate attire, ensuring a semblance of order and uniformity in professional settings. However, beneath this facade of neutrality lies a complex interplay of racial, gender, and class biases that disproportionately impact marginalized groups, compelling them to adhere to a limited set of appearance standards rooted in Eurocentric norms. An especially poignant example of this emerges when examining the struggles endured by Black individuals in relation to their natural hair and traditional hairstyles. These discriminatory policies starkly illustrate how dress codes can be manipulated to uphold systemic racism, perpetuating an environment where conformity to white-centric standards is valued above all.


In a society undergoing profound shifts in cultural norms, the perception of body modifications has evolved dramatically, particularly when it comes to tattoos and piercings. What was once seen as unconventional or even taboo is now widely embraced as a form of personal expression. However, professionalism often clashes with this modern acceptance of body modifications. Many workplaces, influenced by traditional and often outdated views, continue to view tattoos and piercings as unprofessional or inappropriate. This disparity highlights the glaring divide between evolving attitudes and the entrenched norms of corporate spaces. The insistence on adhering to rigid dress codes that stifle the expression of one's true self only further underscores the oppressive nature of these norms:

  • Standards of professionalism value white maleness above all

  • Professionalism is a tool of the elite to keep workers “in their place” (Black people, people of color, women, folx with disabilities, the LGBTQ+ community, etc)

  • Dress codes turn “isms” into policies

  • Being asked to be more professional is a direct affront to who I am

The call for conformity to established professional norms can leave individuals feeling estranged from their own identities. Many individuals bear tattoos, piercings, and other body modifications that hold immense personal and cultural significance. Yet, these outward manifestations of identity are often met with disdain as they clash against the conventional norms of professionalism, which cements the unfounded belief that specific appearances are inherently at odds with competence and expertise.


Furthermore, a glaring double standard persists between male and female employees. This discrepancy is not only a matter of clothing but extends to personal appearance and expression. The expectations placed on individuals regarding their attire and presentation differ dramatically based on their gender. Women frequently encounter a set of expectations that encompass various aspects of their appearance, including clothing, makeup, and hairstyle. This double standard creates an environment where women are required not only to excel in their professional roles but also to navigate a minefield of appearances, all while striving to meet expectations that often reflect outdated gender norms.


This issue stretches further than the binary of gender—it extends to the LGBTQ+ community and individuals who challenge the conventional confines of gender norms. The disparities in expectations regarding appearance reflect the deeply ingrained sexism and gender bias within the framework of professionalism. Women and gender non-conforming individuals face a balancing act, where traditional professionalism conflicts with their authentic selves.


Dress codes are arbitrary and oppressive. It's the work that matters (as long as it is rooted in antiracism and intersectional feminism, duh).

Communication & Exclusion


Do you, like, know what I mean?? Like, what do you think?


Communication, often considered a bridge that connects individuals, unfortunately, harbors its own set of biases, shaping our perceptions and interactions in ways we might not even realize. Within the professional sphere, the expectations surrounding "professional" language frequently demand the suppression of accents, linguistic nuances, and markers of specific cultural backgrounds. This pursuit of linguistic uniformity, while appearing impartial, inadvertently sidelines those who do not conform to these constructed norms:

  • Women are expected to change their voices to suit society (e.g. eliminate uptalk, vocal fry, and 'valley girl' speak)

  • AAVE* is seen as unprofessional, which is harmfully discriminatory to Black Americans

  • "Professional" speech and corporate terminology frequently include ableist words and phrases

  • Accent discrimination is pervasive in the workplace

AND to add to this-- research shows that altering your speech at work can impair your ability to solve complex problems, generate ideas, and maintain personal investment in your work.


An example of linguistic bias that I particularly relate to lies in the judgment against "vocal fry" and "Valley Girl speak," often associated with young women. While these speech patterns are not new and have existed for generations, they have been criticized as unprofessional and even irritating. The irony is that women, who have historically been at the forefront of linguistic innovation and change, now find their unique contributions held against them in professional settings.


In this same vein, women have been consistently penalized for their speech patterns. The linguistic choices that women make, whether it's the modulation of their voice or their intonation, are often scrutinized under the lens of professionalism. These biases have led to the silencing of authentic expression, effectively suppressing the diversity and richness that women bring to the linguistic landscape.


In a world where linguistic evolution is constant and fluid, it's time to embrace the idea that there is no single "professional" way of speaking. The requirements for "professional" language frequently involve the suppression of accents, linguistic nuances, and markers of specific cultural backgrounds. African-American Vernacular English* (AAVE) has long suffered as a victim of this exclusion, contributing to a detrimental environment for Black Americans. The incorporation of ableist terminology and the prevalence of accent discrimination further compound the isolation of individuals from diverse linguistic backgrounds within professional domains.


Language policing is oppression and is like, totally uncool.


Redefining Professionalism


Acknowledging the discriminatory foundations of professionalism is a crucial step toward cultivating more inclusive and equitable professional spaces. Embracing authenticity will lead to innovative problem-solving and a heightened sense of individual engagement in one's work. It is beyond time to challenge the oppressive norms that perpetuate inequality and conformity. By championing a professional environment that revels in diversity, individuals will flourish based on their true talents and contributions.


 

Meet the Author

Dr. Sheva Guy

Dr. Batsheva (Sheva) Guy (she/her/hers) is a Prosci® Certified Change Management Consultant, a Certified Diversity Professional® and a Participatory Action Researcher. Dr. Sheva Guy implements participatory and community-based methods to engage and support diverse groups and advocate for inclusive and equitable practices in higher education, healthcare institutions, nonprofits, industry, and more. Sheva is a professional troublemaker and positive disruptor, constantly challenging the status quo to dismantle inequities. She proudly identifies as "Antiracist AF" and unapologetically embraces the title of "Tattooed PhD."




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