How many times have you heard the phrase, “dress professionally”? In our culture, we have preconceived ideas about what it means to look “nice.” We recite scripts about professionalism daily, and we follow the rules without necessarily knowing that we can question them.
I used to teach public speaking to undergraduates in college and on the first day of class, they ALWAYS asked, “Are we supposed to dress professionally for our speeches?”
This question always irks me. I then ask, “What does it mean to look professional?”
The response is usually: “Looking nice.”
I probe the question further. “So what does it mean to look nice?”
At this point in the conversation, it usually gets pretty quiet until a bold voice speaks up to say, “well, clean, put together.”
Well, what does “clean” look like?
Then someone always says, “like you have money…like you’re not poor.”
So, professionalism becomes a uniform to “look like you have money.” It becomes a very classed ritual, where we feel like if you have money, or if you look like you have money, your opinion is more valuable than someone who looks poor.
My students failed to realize that our ideas about cleanliness and professionalism are largely steeped in white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal ideas of looking appropriate.
For example, whenever I would teach my students, I knew that I would never necessarily get the same automatic respect that an older white man would get. I’m young, pretty, and brown. Those are generally NOT the most popular characteristics to have when you want to be taken seriously in a patriarchal climate…especially in a leadership position when students are accustomed to leaders being white and male.
I was challenged by my students all of the time. I had students comment on my clothing every two minutes. I even had a super inappropriate student who ran a radio show comment on how “ugly” my natural hair was. [I would wear two-strands twists to class and he would comment on them ALL of the time].
An older white male colleague told me, “You should start dressing more professionally if you want the students to take you more seriously.”
Ideas about professionalism often conjure up mythological narratives about sanitized sameness…like we can fix racism and sexism with a pant suit.
If we all look the same superficially, then ideally, we’ll all be treated the same, right?
Narratives about “acting professionally” or “dressing professionally” take away from very important discussions that need to take place about difference. Perhaps my students are disrespecting me because I’m a young brown woman in a leadership position…something that a pant suit can’t fix. The fact that my white male colleague didn’t factor in racism and sexism into our discussion demonstrated how privileged his own life was—how he drank the postracial kool-aid, that we’re all equal, and that we all have access to looking professional.
In a world where postracial professionalism dominates, when you’re treated poorly because you’re brown or because you’re a woman, the discussion quickly turns to the way you’re dressed…that it’s your responsibility that people aren’t treating you right because you don’t have the right clothes on. It becomes your individual responsibility, rather than a systemic violation.
Some of us will never be considered professional…especially when professionalism is framed around able-bodied white men.
Because of the ridiculous post racial discussion I had with the white male colleague, I would purposefully not wear suits, or any uniform for image purposes because I knew that even with a pant suit on, I would have to labor harder than a white man in this leadership position because of the way students treated me.
So, rather than giving up, I took advantage of the opportunity to use my critical approach on professionalism to teach the students a valuable lesson: PROFESSIONALISM DOES NOT ERASE DISCRIMINATION. Wearing a uniform doesn’t mean you’ll be treated the same as your other colleagues who wear the same clothes.
Looking like you have money doesn’t mean your opinion is more valuable than someone who “looks” poor.
A close friend of mine [a black woman with a PhD in a science field] told me: “You know what, I’ve realized that even with a PhD, I still have to prove how smart I am to everyone because I’m black. Having a PhD doesn’t erase racism.”
So, when I’d show up to class, I would wear jeans, boring shirts, and my natural afro. I understood that these undergraduates were not necessarily accustomed to seeing female instructors with this attire on, and I had a blast. I wanted them to understand why I refused to dress “professionally” [in the mainstream way]. I wanted them to understand why I resisted being a slave to looking “professional” in a world where women and minorities still are not taken seriously. Honestly, I feel like I developed an awesome relationship with my students because of it. I didn’t feel the pressure to act like someone I wasn’t. I could wear jeans and have my natural fro out, and still be a badass, smart ass, critical, political woman and educator.
The performance of professionalism can be extremely exhausting and traumatic for those of us who are perpetually left out of the definition.
Having natural hair in a work setting can immediately make you see how professionalism privileges whiteness. Another close friend of mine [a black woman chemist] was at work and was asked by her boss to change her afro hair texture because it wasn’t “professional.”
I was once a front desk receptionist [with a short twa: teeny weeny afro] and was asked to wear a pony tail, straighten my hair, and wear more make up so that I looked like a “barbie doll.” When I refused, they said I wasn’t being “professional.”
I’m sure you might have some stories of your own when you felt eternally excluded from the very narrow idea of what it meant to be or look professional.
Professionalism can be violent. Racists and sexists can hide behind the term “professional” to carry out their own oppressive agendas. If you don’t look a certain way, you’re asked questions; however, we never think to question the rules that are in place and who benefits the most from them.