There has been a recent push across the U.S. made by several employers, advocating for the return to in-person workspaces after a year 42% of American workers (successfully) worked from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many people, Black people, in particular, have been opposing this return to normalcy because white-collar workplaces have always been a source of oppression for us in a number of different ways; all equally as harmful as the next.
In fact, only a mere 3% of Black professionals want to go back to work full-time in the office. Therefore, white professionals must reckon with what that statistic illustrates about the type of environments that workplaces have created to the detriment of their Black employees.
In the context of white-collar work settings, workplace professionalism is “working and behaving in such a way that others think as competent, reliable and respectful,” according to the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants. The concept of professionalism also emphasizes how people physically present themselves at work or as an extension or representation of their employer even while away from the office.
Unfortunately, though, as a result of having to learn to adapt within white workspaces, Black people have had to learn to code switch—a term coined by Einar Haugen in 1954 to describe language alternation, or the mixing of two or more languages, or dialects—manipulate our natural hair texture, or overall abandon our culture as a means for survival in the workplace. And if we fail to successfully integrate or become what white employers deem as “professional,” we risk facing punishment.
In truth, this conversation is long overdue. “Professionalism is just a synonym for obedience,” Chika Ekemezie says in an article for Zora. And she’s right. “The less social capital you have, the more you are tethered to professionalism”: meaning, performing professionalism becomes even more essential the more financially insecure a person is, which puts a lot of pressure on working-class Black Americans to conform to a status quo that centers whiteness or we risk being barred from economic and job opportunities.
Consequently, “these expectations of professionalism are so common to us — from our outer appearance to the way we behave — we begin to create different versions of ourselves, doppelgängers to help us get through the day,” Chika explains. However, having to be what is essentially “reformed” versions of ourselves for long hours of the day, five days a week, can have negative consequences on our mental health and job performance.
According to a Harvard Business Review article titled “The Cost of Codeswitching,” the authors assert: “Seeking to avoid stereotypes can deplete cognitive resources and hinder performance. [In addition] feigning commonality with [white] coworkers also reduces authentic self-expression and contributes to burnout.”
Ultimately and unsurprisingly, workplace professionalism in the U.S. wasn’t designed with Black people and Black culture in mind. And especially in a white-dominated society, Blackness is seen as inherently unkept, unrefined, and undignified.
The idea that we can successfully keep up this illusion of professionalism to remain physically integrated with white people is ridiculous. Because the culture surrounding what constitutes professionalism has forced Black people to adhere to whiteness in a way that’s simply unnatural and unsustainable.
Even still, Black people have continued to fight a losing battle of performing respectability in the workplace that will never be good enough because the goal post for what professionalism means and who it truly applies to is always moving.
So, if there was ever a time to re-examine toxic workplace culture, it’s now. In the past year, Black communities across America have been hit hard by a global pandemic and have watched as the policing and justice system continues to have a flagrant disregard for our livelihood. And despite all of the racial injustice that was highlighted in both 2020 and 2021, the support for Black lives is at an all-time low.
Coming back to the office would only serve as an added burden on Black American’s mental and emotional well-being. Working from home, on the other hand, has finally allowed Black professionals the freedom of self-expression without having to endure the inherent racism that comes from being amongst predominantly white work environments.
Understandably, though, adjusting to telework has been difficult for many and ultimately isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to rectifying, improving, or rebuilding racist workplaces.
But whatever the case, in whatever a post-pandemic society looks like, we can’t resort back to western, white supremacist work culture just because it’s comfortable for some while disadvantageous for others. And to put it plainly, professionalism has long been about control just to remind racially marginalized communities white people hold the power and can wield it against us whenever and however they like.
In turn, there needs to be a continuous conversation for how we can accommodate Black, Indigenous, and other POC communities into the workplace all while dismantling the oppressive idea of professionalism. Because wearing a bonnet, a durag, braids, dread locs, natural hair, or just overall being unapologetically and authentically Black while working never hurt anyone.
And if we’re all working to build a more equitable society, traditional ideas of professionalism would have no place there anyway.
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