Anti-racism takes restructuring of  ‘professionalism’

In response to protests following the death of George Floyd, organizations like General Motors, Salesforce, and Citi pledged to diversify their spaces and support underrepresented employees.

In response to protests following the death of George Floyd, organizations like General Motors, Salesforce, and Citi pledged to diversify their spaces and support underrepresented employees. Berkeley Unified School District is no different, publishing a resolution in June 2020.

The resolution states a commitment “not only to address the symbols of institutional racism and white supremacy, but also to proactively identify and address biases, practices, policies, and institutional barriers that perpetuate injustice and inequality in our schools and our community.”

In order to properly maintain their commitment to antiracism, BUSD and professional organizations nationally must recognize that “professionalism” is rooted in whiteness.

Many efforts made by organizations in recent years to diversify their staff have been ineffective. In an article by the Harvard Business Review, Victor Ray wrote, “such organizational policies … fail to address the racial hierarchies historically built into American organizations.”

The root of diversity issues in professional spaces is our understanding of what “professionalism” even is. Characteristics of our culture institutionalize whiteness as the standard, and Western ideals as subtly superior to other ethnic, racial, and regional identities.

Organizations often mandate dress and grooming rules rooted in European beauty standards, and explicitly or subtly target dreadlocks or natural hair as “messy.”

Additionally, workplaces excessively scrutinize timeliness. A 2017 survey from Career Builder found that 41 percent of all United States employees are fired due to continual lateness to work. Professionalism in the U.S. is based on a “monochronic” culture: time commitments, accomplishing tasks in a linear fashion, and productivity are valued over people. Many Black and immigrant communities have a “polychronic” culture: tasks are completed, but socialization and familial connections are valued over economic labor.

White superiority is also deeply rooted in U.S. workplaces through hiring practices. A 2003 study done by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that job applicants with white names needed to send about 10 resumes to get one callback, while those with African American names needed to send around 15 resumes to get one callback. 

If professionalism is only interpreted in one way, it becomes systematically harder for people of color to succeed professionally, taking a personal toll. People of color must constantly code switch, and censor themselves in order to be seen as “professional,” leading to severe burnout.

For professional spaces to be institutionally equitable, workplaces must undo the concept of professionalism, truly creating inclusive workspaces. How can this be done?

Historically Black institutions, such as colleges and universities, actively push to uproot ideas of white superiority in professionalism, instead focusing on culture and building personal confidence. Nita Dailey, a regional recruiter for the historically Black men’s college Morehouse, has seen students begin to stand up against biased professionalism. 

“Since George Floyd … it’s not just about going away to a school and hoping to acclimate,” Daily said. “Students want to find a space where, from their hair to ethnic foods … they’re comfortable and understood already.” 

Locally, many youth development programs are available to Berkeley High School students. Programs that focus on college and career preparation, such as YouthWorks, Berkeley’s Health Justice Internship, and YR Media, work largely with low income or Black and brown youth. 

These introductions into the professional workplace, for young people of color, focus on flexibility and inclusion, rather than western standards of professionalism. Developing professional development skills in a flexible and understanding space gives future generations the tools to succeed in workplaces that are inherently not built for them. 

We must see professional organizations in the U.S. for what they are: long-standing social structures built and managed to prioritize whiteness.