Professionalism - Business people in a video call meeting

The Anti-Blackness of “Professionalism”

Racist narratives under capitalism considers African people as commodities for profit, whilst creating conditions that assimilate them to their white or Non-Black People of Color (NBPOC) counterparts. Whiteness is treated as the standard, with employers who hold similar views policing Black bodies into what they deem acceptable. Under the guise of professionalism, features associated with Blackness—attire, mannerisms, vernacular, and general appearance—are viewed as unfit for an occupational setting and are deeply rooted in anti-Black sentiments.

The process of upholding such standards requires focus on features that are prevalent in the African diaspora. Employers and recruitment personnel look at hair, dress code and how one speaks to name a few, with intersectional factors such as colorism, fatphobia, class, and gender creating a more biased view. Employees in the diaspora face a high level of discrimination based on their features, where complaints and legal action have been taken by many. These persons face mistreatment, harsher repercussions for their behavior and reduced opportunities.

Each feature is scrutinized differently based on comparisons to the white aesthetic. Hair is an example, where texturism influences the perception of hair types associated in the Black diaspora. As Black persons are measured to whiteness—particularly straight hair—hair types that are in the 2A-3B category are more acceptable than those that are 3C-4C. Kinky-coily hair is typically seen as untidy, especially on darker persons. Hairstyles that are prevalent in the diaspora are also scrutinized, such as afros or even protective styles. There is a clear bias as colleagues who are white or NBPOC with “acceptable” hair can replicate similar styles without the same consequences.

Attire is another feature and a company can create guidelines on suitable attire to represent their company—more often than not excluding anything of cultural or religious significance. There are businesses that disallow accessories such as head-garments and jewelry due to their cultural biases. These biases result in management not viewing these details as important to the African diaspora and instead reinforce minimal wear. This also reflects the association of “ghetto” to Blackness, treating what is predominant in African cultural groups with negative implications.

Their perception of “ghetto” is not acceptable and anything of relevance is often prohibited, even if it is seen as “trendy” on non-Black colleagues. The Black aesthetic in all forms contradict their notions of workplace professionalism and employees are policed to maintain a discriminative standard. Alongside the aesthetic is behavior apparent in numerous cultural groups, where employers measure behavior associated with whiteness as timid, innocent and controlled in contrast to the opposite they label Black persons. The negative implications applied here state that the latter will create a bad image for the company, even if this is based on unfair judgment.

Vernacular and tone are also judged and targets employees with accents management aren’t familiar with, understand or don’t classify as “decent”. “Proper English” as many would say, is the ideal example of how one should speak although this excludes elements of speech such as African American Vernacular English (AAVE), patios and other forms of local dialect that are important to the community. This becomes a form of erasure, molding persons into a sub-version of whiteness. Professionalism is a restrictive tool that upholds white standards in society.

Laws against discrimination exist in defense of and protection for racial groups among many others, but in a world where racism is prevalent, how is this enforced? The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) notes employment discrimination as differential or unfavorable treatment, varying from unfair treatment due to race, sex, complexion, and much more to retaliation on discriminating acts. Although there are things in place, there is still a high level of discrimination in workplaces that aren’t dealt with. Data provided by Paychex Work show rates of workplace discrimination between 1997 and 2018, where the EEOC has filed 1,889,631 discrimination complaints. Of those specifically based on race, it was at 34%. Important to note, of all complaints filed—such as those based on disability, race, sex and much more—64% were dismissed on finding no issue after investigation and 18% closed for administrative reasons. 

This means that even in the category of racial discrimination, there’s the likelihood of instances where the employee withdrew their complaint or was unable to thoroughly complete the process with uncooperative efforts by management. In several workplaces employers threaten employees with job loss, resulting in a lack of confidence to address their concerns. This becomes beneficial for capitalism, understanding the necessity to maintain a level of unemployment for its longevity—yet reinforces values that force persons to tolerate the conditions they’re in to remain employed. Instead of creating an environment where Black employees can be their authentic selves, they’re told to hide that for the company’s image. They’re told that they can do as they wish outside of work, yet in jobs where the majority of one’s time is spent between commuting and work, little time is available for self-interests. 

Realistically, it’s impractical to expect an employee to separate themselves in such a way, especially to appeal to discriminatory regulations that solely uphold whiteness. It’s alarming to view practices of one’s culture, religion, or any other factor as a distraction or nuisance, with the justification of one’s biases towards them. It’s disturbing to be treated as replaceable commodities who can be stripped of their identity, rather than beings who are multi-faceted and should embrace themselves in every field they function in. “Professionalism” is used as a racist instrument, weaponized against Africans under a capitalist system. It is not inclusive for identities in the African diaspora and must be abolished in every field. 

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Princess Avianne Charles, also referred to as “Avianne”, is a Trinidadian writer and blogger. With experience in the field of Occupational Safety and Health, she promotes safer spaces and advocates for human rights both in and out of the workplace.