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The Racist Truth Behind Professionalism pt. 1


via Christina @


Many might say professionalism is essential to the workplace. Professionalism, as defined by the all-knowing google, is the competence or skill expected of a professional person and according to the AACP the ten characteristics of a professional person include: 

  1. A neat appearance
  2. “Proper” demeanor 
  3. Reliability 
  4. Competency 
  5. Good phone etiquette 
  6. Ethical 
  7. Organized 
  8. Accountable 
  9. Communicator 
  10. Poised 

I would go into detail with each characteristic, but what if I told you professionalism was a sham based on racist ––and oftentimes classist–– ideals. Yes, many of these are what you want in an employee such as being reliable, organized, and a good communicator but other characteristics such as a “neat” appearance, “proper” demeanor, or ethics are, in my opinion, highly subjective and that is where we see the biggest parts of racism in professionalism. 

Even if we ignored the AACP’s definition of what professionalism should look like characteristically and thought of it on a broad level, many of the things that are expected of a professional person are rooted in whiteness. You may disagree, but I urge you to challenge your opinion and see how many of the things we expect from a “professional” person is directly discriminatory to people of color, specifically in the United States. 

Because much of “professionalism” is directly correlated with “whiteness,” white supremacy is known to be discussed concerning professionalism. However, it is not the violent and blatant white supremacy taught in history but instead the white supremacy that creates systemic discrimination. As put by Aysa Gray in the Standford Social Innovation Review:

“We are taught to identify white supremacy with violent segregationist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and their modern-day equivalents. Okun and Jones, however, introduce a different approach to thinking about white supremacy. In their definition, the term describes a series of characteristics that institutionalize whiteness and Westernness as both normal and superior to other ethnic, racial, and regional identities and customs. While people often don’t view this theorization of white supremacy as violent, it can lead to systemic discrimination and physical violence.”

Gray discusses a version of white supremacy relevant to professionalism. The values of “perfectionism” and their only being “one right” that run deep in white supremacy, according to Gray, undermines professionalism as we know it today. According to Gray, the standard of hiring, firing, and management of workplaces in white western spaces controls the appearance (dress and hairstyle), speech, word choice, communication, and attitudes to work styles. There are so many examples of this in work environments. 

If you have paid attention to the news in the past few years, you may know that only as recently as 2019 was action taken against these discriminatory behaviors due to the Crown Act being passed. For years many people, and disproportionately black women, faced discrimination based on their hair. The Crown Act is a bill that ended discriminatory actions against people based on their hair if their hair is natural or a foundation to their culture. 

Professionalism is also rooted in language. There is a certain dialect expected when referring to professionalism however this dialect or style of speaking often excludes things like African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) and may be used to even discriminate against people with accents.  professionalism tells us there's only one right way of speaking however this is just not true since people come from different environments and different backgrounds no one should be discriminated against based on how they speak. 

There's also an expected behavior that comes along with professionalism that directly affects people of color as well. Because of various racial stereotypes impeded upon people of color, for example, black women being perceived as loud and or aggressive for perfectly normal behavior. Behavior can be perceived differently depending on the person and it oftentimes negatively affects people of color. Oftentimes black women are expected to act extra nice or go out of their way to make sure that no one thinks of us as rude for simply being quiet or keeping to ourselves. Black women -- and other people of color as well -- can feel mental strain trying to meet the standards of professionalism in the working world that tell them that all their normal behaviors are “unprofessional.”

Whether you want to acknowledge it or not, professionalism is rooted in racism. We must challenge professionalism as a standard in order to not only dismantle systemic racism in the professional world but also to make these spaces a more comfortable and equitable environment for all. 


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