Racism runs deep in professionalism culture

Shahamat Uddin, Intersections Editor

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I am sitting in the waiting room before a job interview. My foot is tapping incessantly while I tug on the too tight tie constricting my neck. My face is clean-shaven, all piercings removed, and my body is coddled underneath the slim-fitting suit jacket I just purchased from Macy’s. In my head, I am practicing my straight voice, going over the English words that I struggle with daily. I catch a reflection of myself in the window across the room and, at first, I don’t recognize myself. I see a shell of who I am, an individual transformed to fit the historically white standards of business professionalism.

Czars Trinidad | Layout Editor

At Tulane, we tout professionalism. When first meeting with their advisors, students are encouraged to take a career development course. Part of our campus culture revolves around the presence of “business professional fraternities.” Our students are constantly interviewing for positions on campus, training themselves in classic business professionalism. 

What is professionalism? Most Tulane students share the experience of being coached in business professionalism at some point in their lives. We are taught to come to interviews in Western business attire, communicate in Proper English and say what hiring managers want to hear.

But when we are asking applicants to adhere to these standards of professionalism, what are we asking them not to do? Professionalism is asking Black people to not speak African American Vernacular English and instead code-switch to white-accessible dialects. It is asking nonwhite people to hide their culture dress and instead purchase clothes they will only wear to interviews. It is asking applicants to speak on work experiences that were “challenging” instead of the ones where we had racist bosses. 

Western business professionalism is rooted in white supremacy. The practice of professionalism is shaped to advance the careers of white, straight, married men. Black women have been fired just for coming to work in their natural hair. Arab people have been fired for speaking Arabic to their colleagues. Latina nurses have been fired for violating “professional conduct codes” when their white coworkers were not for doing the same thing. 

From the minute nonwhite people begin their job applications to the last day at their jobs, their identities are under constant scrutiny, a scrutiny claiming to check for “business professionalism” but which really inspects for the employee’s adherence to whiteness.

Is my name white enough?

A study conducted by Northwestern University concluded that white applicants received 36% more callbacks for jobs than equally qualified applicants with Black-sounding names. People with classically South Asian and East Asian names were 28% less likely to get called for an interview than their white counterparts. In the United Kingdom, a person named Adam was offered three times as many interviews than someone named Mohammed. Before a nonwhite person can even think about appearing more white to get a job, their name already puts them at a significant disadvantage. It is not uncommon for applicants with ethnic-sounding names to fake it on resumes and job applications. I will never forget the surprise on my interviewer’s face when I applied for an internship as ‘Matt’ and appeared on my skype interview as my full Brown self. 

Your hair is too Black

When Chastity Jones was offered a customer service job with Catastrophe Management, she was met with the condition that she cut her locs before her first day of work. Discriminatory policies towards Black people’s hair dates as far back as America’s independence. New Orleans passed the Tignon laws in the 1700s, banning free Creole women from displaying kinks and coils in their hair. Instead, the laws required them to wear scarves that identified them with the slave class. Black people’s hair is still policed in the workforce today. A corporate board recruiter quoted that she would much rather hire a woman with a sleek ponytail than one with a natural hairstyle such as locs or an Afro. Preferences for employees with eurocentric hairstyles such as straightened relaxed hair is not an upholding of professionalism; it is a hatred of Black people.

I can’t understand what they’re saying

“It’s very disconcerting to have different languages spoken,” said Susan Warner, president and general counsel of Human Resource Trouble Shooters, a Philadelphia HR consulting firm. “I call that a ‘language-hostile environment.’” 

Speaking non-english languages in the breakroom or talking in different languages with a colleague are practices that are seen as ‘unprofessional’ when they are really just ways of life for people. Non-English speakers are expected to come to the workplace and shape their identities for the comfort of other people. Professionalism is an entitlement to other people’s speech. Restricting non-English languages in the workplace is not an advancement of a company’s goals but an advancement of xenophobia. 

The Guardian found that “eight in 10 employers admit to making discriminating decisions based on regional accents.” Academic and corporate spaces push a complex standard of vocabulary, grammar and syntax. This ultimately results in an exclusion of people who don’t speak “professional” English. ESL speakers and applicants from communities of different dialects are inherently dispossessed from accessing esteemed corporate spaces because of these standards under the guise of “professionalism.”

The Brown person is always late

In the context of punctuality, nonwhite people are held to a much higher standard here than white counterparts. When a nonwhite person is late — even just one time — their white management and colleagues will constantly bombard them with, “Oh, I guess the stereotype is true, Brown people are always late.” Nonwhite people have to work twice as hard to show up on time so that they are not the subject of white people’s racialized expectations of Brown and Black people. 

It is far easier for white men to get to work on time than Black people who are having to change their hair to fit the workplace’s professionalism standards.

The 40-hour work week was built to allow white men to succeed at work while their wives would care for all of the family’s child and home responsibilities. The reason “CP time” exists is because non-Western cultures tend to have more polychronic work environments, and there is a different prioritization of family and relationships over capitalist productivity and work demands. 

Black and Brown people face different barriers to punctuality than white people. Business districts are predominantly surrounded by white communities.  Gentrification has supported an exodus of poor Brown and Black communities from inner urban areas of business. Geographically speaking, Black and Brown communities are simply displaced further and further away from central areas of business.

I believe that punctuality is essential for productive work ethic, but it is critical to understand that the stereotype of Black and Brown people always being late is supported by racialized systems of discrimination.

You’re so brave

The workplace is never the time to be Brown or Black … until white people want it to be. Professionalism will ask me not to bring my cultural food that “stinks up the entire break lounge,” but contact me when they want to bring someone in to do Henna on Holi. Interviewers would much rather listen to the stories of my parents’ immigration struggle coming from Bangladesh than the time I organized all the people of color in my organization to fight back against our racist boss. Companies and organizations will boast about an imperative for diversity when they can put Brown and Black faces on their website and in presentation decks for their clients, but when it comes to dismantling white-centered professionalism to make Brown and Black comfortable, they’re silent.

And most of the time, we have to be silent too. As I have entered and continue to enter the workforce, I have learned when and where it is to my own disadvantage to be too Brown or too gay or too immigrant. Brown and Black people adapting to professionalism is our survival instinct. I remember the cultural pride I felt when I got my gold studded nose piercing, admiring my ancestors who donned the same kind of jewelry. I take it out now because I know I need a job, and I have learned from the Brown and Black people before me what I have to sacrifice to get one.

Everything from career development courses to professional fraternities can push Brown and Black people to be the most equipped and prepared for the elite workforce, but we will still have to tackle the systemic white supremacy that is barring us from maximal success. Regardless of how “professional” we are, we still aren’t white in a space made for white people. 

While I can recognize that business professionalism is racist, don’t come for me when you see me in navy blue suit on my way to my job interview at a corporate bank. My name, race, and voice will always be in the shadows of my qualifications and work ethic. I come to every interview, job shift, meeting, 20 minutes early because I know that I have to fight the expectation of Brown tardiness. When I take phone calls from my Bengali speaking family members, I go to the private meeting rooms as to not intimidate my colleagues around me. I enter every workplace space under the most perfect standards of professionalism because I know that I need to work twice as hard to prove that I belong there. 

Coming from a Brown and immigrant family, I know that this country was not made for me, but I feel an obligation to myself and to my family to enter these inaccessible spaces and make them better for us. The dreams of my family rest on my shoulders and I fight tooth and nail to ensure that exclusionary practices of professionalism are not the things that prevent me from achieving them. 

With this mind, I do look to the powerful white people in these spaces hiring managers, interviewers and current workers to recognize these systems and make strides towards dismantling them. 

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