Share

By Kelly Phipps, digital fundraising and philanthropy communications

It’s easy to think that professionalism is mostly good, that it is synonymous with having a good work ethic and providing good customer service. But since professionalism also causes BIPOC employees to make sacrifices, both small and large, I question it.

I used to wear the title of ‘working professional’ with pride.

It’s because I have an inescapable type A personality. It was also because I was fed the message of maximizing career pursuits ever since middle school, when my aptitude for organizing became clear in extracurricular activities.

Once I reached college, I worked between two to three jobs at a time out of necessity to pay my bills, but also to quell my raging fixation on ensuring my resume was impressive when I graduated. I even started wearing blazers to class, while others wore sweatshirts, to push myself further into the epitome of professionalism. And no one around me ever stopped to wonder if I truly was developing my future outside of the context of career.

However, now that I’m 30, I can finally admit that I’m constantly having an internal battle against who capitalism fashioned me to be. When people ask what my career goals are, my blank and anxious mind wanders into some obscure philosophical state, pondering the meaning of life while I mumble that as long as I’m making a difference, my job title doesn’t matter.

It’s easy to think that professionalism is mostly good, that it is synonymous with having a good work ethic and providing good customer service. But since professionalism also causes BIPOC employees to make sacrifices, both small and large, I question it.

Shifting away from professionalism

Today I feel weighed down by professionalism’s problematic roots, specifically how the structures of power dictate the culture of professionalism and how capitalism pollutes our definition of destiny.

There isn’t a single moment that created the shift from type-A go-getter to my current state in my mind. Each day is a new step in analyzing and understanding what societal messaging I’ve internalized. While I’ve always had a dream of helping to empower a new generation of BIPOC women moving into leadership positions within nonprofit spaces, I’ve realized that unless I am fully authentic in the office and have done the hard work with myself internally, I am just perpetuating toxic professionalism.

… the decisions I made to meet the definitions of professionalism brought me one step closer to emulating the norms of my white peers and leaders.

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, a definition of professionalism is “the combination of all the qualities that are connected with trained and skilled people.” It sounds benign, but the toxicity creeps in when societal views of training and skills start to encompass traits that deal more with a person’s identity and aesthetic than their talents.

When I started down my career path, I couldn’t help but notice that the decisions I made to meet the definitions of professionalism brought me one step closer to emulating the norms of my white peers and leaders.

For most BIPOCs, these decisions often result in adhering to Eurocentric beauty standards like straightening hair to fit in or choosing to wear blazers and suits at work over styles closer to an authentic identity. We may filter our ideas and feedback through corporate jargon and code-switching. Or navigate tokenism and microaggressions while maintaining poise and politeness.

The more I peel back the layers covering my unease with professionalism, the more I see our society’s obsession with wealth and status peering through, tangling itself up with the racism that our nation has yet to fully reckon with.

Here are ways capitalism and racism negatively impact the culture of professionalism.

Capitalism

Think about how much of our lives revolve around trying to obtain wealth and materials, including within our school systems and its curriculum, the prestige of certain university degrees, and how we define success. In the default societal context, our identity and value to society is rooted in how productive we are.

Capitalism is an economic system that hinges around private or corporate ownership of capital goods, the value of which are determined by competition in a free market. While capitalism is often framed as sparking innovation and progress, it also has a darker reality of exploitation. The byproducts of capitalism create many of the very disparities that nonprofits seek to alleviate.

The consequences of capitalism are ever-present in the workplace, from the hierarchies of leadership to who holds decision-making power to the constant struggles of employee burnout and overtime. There is the constant pressure to do more, to be better than those around us, and to secure that next promotion or raise.

And for many women and people of color, that definition of success is disproportionately harder to achieve.

Racism, sexism, and professionalism

I used to pride myself on meeting all deadlines and thought I was demonstrating sought-after talent by completing complex tasks sooner than expected. But one day, I realized I was trapped in a never-ending cycle that left me burnt out and frustrated.

So what is perpetuating the entanglement of professionalism and racism?

According to the 2020 Women in the Workplace report by McKinsey & Company and Lean In, white men hold 66% of c-suite jobs while women of color hold just 3%. Since leadership plays a pivotal role in defining corporate culture, that means a majority of corporate culture is overwhelmingly influenced by one demographic. And since the demographic holding the majority of power for decades has racial and gender prejudices and biases, racist and sexist practices seep into the fabric of professionalism.

The Society for Human Resource Management revealed a study that only 13% of white HR professionals surveyed believed that discrimination based on race and ethnicity existed in their workplace. And while arguably some of these leaders are not setting out to create a work environment that perpetuates the barriers to a more diverse c-suite, at a base level, there is often a lack of awareness about how their social location influences the corporate culture around them.

The gaps within leadership and workplace discrimination aren’t surprising. What was truly my epiphany, however, was to learn how the value structure born from this environment molded my daily attitudes towards work and success.

I used to pride myself on meeting all deadlines and thought I was demonstrating sought-after talent by completing complex tasks sooner than expected. But one day, I realized I was trapped in a never-ending cycle that left me burnt out and frustrated.

Then I stumbled across a webinar “Black, Indigenous, People of Color Surviving Predominantly White Institutions” by artEquity and had this truly mind-blowing experience. Through artEquity, I learned that how I approach the concept of time and deadlines was rooted in a cycle that contributes to barriers for women and people of color.

A dRworks resource by Tema Okun, in particular, helped define, for me, what a white supremacy culture looks like in organizations. One of the pillar definitions is a sense of urgency. When an organization persists in a rushed state where everything is on an emergency timeline, it results in staff members forgoing planning and process. It can create an environment where those with power and influence maintain prominence and those whose voices and skills are actually needed get left behind. The process becomes more about fulfilling orders and less about brainstorming and inclusion. Okun details that in a results-driven world, the very act of slowing down to ask the important questions and ensure the right voices are present is counter-culture and disruptive.

For me, this was a huge pill to swallow — to realize that each late night I worked to rush the completion of a task was actually a missed opportunity to build collaboration — and it harmed my mental wellbeing.

Resistance can be the simple act of slowing down, taking a step back, and asking why.

Respectability Politics

… the fact that I presented myself in a certain way and believed elements of professionalism meant that I was a tool of respectability politics.

Oof, this is another hard one. According to Dictionary.com, respectability politics is “a set of beliefs holding that conformity to prescribed mainstream standards of appearance and behavior will protect a person who is part of a marginalized group, especially a Black person, from prejudices and systemic injustices.”

Simply put, if we act a certain way we can fit in just a little bit more and avoid consequences of being perceived as a stereotype.

While I was still in college, I took a summer internship at a large organization. The hiring manager was a Black woman who went over the top to ensure I was excited about my internship.

A few weeks before the internship started, she sent me an email with some final details and, as a P.S., prompted me to look at some hairstyles and consider straightening my hair.

I was thrown off and conflicted.

While I knew it was a friendly gesture of trying to help me thrive in an internship at a predominately white organization, it also made me feel uncomfortable.

And on the first day of my internship, I showed up in my dark navy business suit — with my hair pressed.

While respectability politics was birthed from a place of survival and desire for safety, it falls short. Way short. Not only does the approach of respectability politics fail to get to the root of the problem, it plays into classism and the very stereotypes we seek to avoid resulting in division, hierarchies, and victim-blaming. While I did not typically go around preaching the ideals of respectability politics, the fact that I presented myself in a certain way and believed elements of professionalism meant that I was a tool of respectability politics.

Unlearning

Unlearning these parts of me are uncomfortable. It makes me want to forget moments of my past, yet I resist because I know unlearning is necessary. I am a better employee, manager, friend, aunt, and community member when I am authentic.

There’s a lot of unlearning to do. After a lifetime of navigating the world a certain way, there are parts of me I am currently untangling to see what is my true personality and what was altered. I learned early on in my childhood that Black girls (especially outgoing ones) are often disciplined more and stereotyped. And it does not stop at childhood.

The story of a group of Black women being kicked off a train for being ‘too loud’ is a constant reminder that my voice and laughter are only welcome in public spaces in small doses. This societal dampening of Black Joy slowly molded me to have a reserved and pensive temperament in public.

The moments I’m with my best friends or in my off-the-wall group chats, I feel the burden lift and the boisterous laughter explode from my shell. While it’s natural to be more free with one’s friends than at work, I feel an acute tension between my two selves. Those two versions of me are too different. And my soul feels it with each and every switch.

Unlearning these parts of me are uncomfortable. It makes me want to forget moments of my past, yet I resist because I know unlearning is necessary. I am a better employee, manager, friend, aunt, and community member when I am authentic.

So what does that mean for our career pursuits? How can we navigate a career while internalizing an awareness of the constant systems at play?

While critiques of capitalism and professionalism are relevant and vital, until the system changes, it will remain part of our daily lives.

So, what are the daily steps we can take to safeguard our mental health, embrace our authenticity, and inspire those around us? Here are some thoughts to consider.

1. You are more than your job title.

When people asked me, “What do you do?” I used to default into my career, job title, and where I work.

Now, I frame my identity in a new way. I’m an Auntie, rage cookie baker, a daydreamer obsessed with breaking down inequalities within Christian spaces and nonprofit organizations, and thanks to the pandemic I play Tetris! Lots of Tetris.

2. Reframe conversations.

The questions we ask also communicate what we value. A simple way to decentralize capitalism and professionalism is through how we connect with those around us.

When meeting someone new, avoid inquiring about someone’s profession unless they bring it up. Consider asking about someone’s passions, their hopes, their hobbies, their family, and the story of where they’re from. Not only will you get to know people on a deeper level, you are finding value in their life outside of a job.

3. Don’t get caught up in the grind.

You are more than your productivity — So much more. Sometimes life is busy and rushed. There may be a day you are stressed about a deadline. It happens. But when you can, slow down. And in the moments that slowing down is not possible, forgive yourself. And don’t give into the guilt when you don’t live up to societal expectations of productivity. You deserve rest. Period.

4. Question professionalism standards.

There may be hard moments when you witness others question or critique a colleague’s professionalism. Before passing judgement, ask yourself, is this critique rooted in a toxic understanding of professionalism? Does the individual being criticized come from a group that is historically marginalized? If the answer to either of those questions is yes, you have an opportunity to educate others on how their understanding of professionalism is harmful.

Depending on where you work, this might seem like an impossible task. But offices around the country need courageous voices willing to call out problematic beliefs and behaviors.

5. Expand your definition of professional networking.

Reflect on who your professional connections are. If you are only pursuing relationships with those in power and name drop around those who are not in power, if you shy away from befriending coworkers who don’t fit company culture, then you have some internalized systemic issues to work through.

Your professional network is enriched when you get to know those from all walks of life, backgrounds, job titles, and personalities. When we only pursue rich and powerful connections and place them on a pedestal, we are reinforcing unhelpful systems of hierarchy.

 

While there is a myriad of collective societal unlearning that needs to happen, I hope that my personal journey of understanding what’s contributed to my career experiences can be a catalyst. Let’s boldly throw out work habits that aren’t contributing to our wellbeing. Let’s call out practices that leave others behind. And let’s never stop questioning tradition.

Kelly Phipps

Kelly Phipps

Kelly Phipps (she/her) is a Minnesota transplant on the West Coast who is passionate about closing the disparity gap of women of color moving into nonprofit leadership roles. The title she is most proud of is being auntie for her three siblings. Kelly enjoys podcasts, amateur baking and gardening, and daydreaming about the future while taking walks on sunny days. While on the clock, Kelly dives into the world of digital fundraising and philanthropy communications. She can be reached on LinkedIn, on Twitter at @KP_PR or via email.

Share