Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what “professionalism” is. This is a phenomenon that I have thought about in the past, but that hadn’t really affected me. I was fortunate and privileged enough to work jobs that are inclusive to a degree where I didn’t feel a need to censor myself — or at least censor myself to the point where I felt severely silenced. I knew I was lucky when I worked these jobs, but I didn’t realize how lucky until recently.
As I transition into different kinds of jobs that require more leadership out of me, I am coming to terms with the fact that professionalism is actually a white male-centric agenda. Again, I knew about this. The problem is that I knew about this intellectually and not in practice. So now that I am realizing how strenuous actually is, I have to reconcile it with the silencing I feel as a Muslim woman of color.
The problem with professionalism is that it alienates those who do not abide by the tacit rules it creates: poor people who do not have the access to the necessary clothing professionalism demands; woke people of color whose voices are silenced in the work space for the benefit of a “comfort” that makes it easier for others to digest their perspective; LGBTQ people whose presentation is deemed “unsuitable” for the workspace; hijabi Muslim women who are told that their veil or apparel is not in accordance with the dress code of a particular setting. These are just a few examples. All of them show how professionalism is just another way to silence and alienate those who are different— either because of their identities or their lifestyles.
This can be incredibly oppressive for some marginalized people. While some may find a way to tread the fine line of codeswitching, where they learn to give their bosses what they want while simultaneously maintaining a sense of self, for others the workspace becomes a dreaded space where a marginalized person has to further confront their oppression. As a result, one is given few choices: assimilate or be rejected. And when these jobs put food on the table and pay bills, what options does one really have?
A cycle of constant anxiety and stress is created. There are no safe spaces. Silence becomes the only option. And the irony of all of this is that we live in a time where diversity and pluralism are supposedly valued. If that is truly the case, then why are so many people silenced? Is diversity really the objective, or the affectation of it? Because in my experience, when I became “myself” as I was encouraged to be by my supervisors, this quickly became a problem and when these same supervisors called me into their offices, I was asked to find another way to say what I wanted to say. So is diversity really valued? Or simply the image of it?
The truth is the workspace is not a safe space. It is another space where survival becomes the default mode for oppressed people. If true inclusion is to be sought, then professionalism needs to be debunked, or at least accessed for its underlying white supremacist, hetero-patriarchal values. We must be willing to give those who are not well represented a space to be themselves as much as we would a straight white man. We must be willing to let people present themselves and to simply exist in the way that allows them to perform at their best.
After all, everyone can benefit from a genuine person. If certain voices are denied, that’s one more unique opinion that will not be contributed during staff meetings and conferences. Comfort for the privileged should not be the end goal; it should not even be seen as a concern when attempting to create a more inclusive working environment. If it is considered, then everything becomes a free for all--another opportunity to silence the marginalized.
We all lose when we police certain perspectives and when the workplace becomes another lie told to marginalized folks about their supposed progress when in reality, it is merely oppression taking on a new form. We must be willing to have a conversation about this stark truth so that all voices can be received with consideration. When we frame dialogue within the lens of a “proper discourse,” what we are really saying is that, if you have something to say outside of that propriety it’s not valid. We must find the courage to face these preconceived paradigms of presentation and behavior so that people can be their authentic selves—or at least as close as possible to them.