Professionalism Is a Relic of White Supremacist Work Culture
Whether it’s Zoom or Slack, Black women can be who we are and get work done
I’ve long been a believer that professionalism is just a synonym for obedience. The less social capital you have, the more you are tethered to professionalism. It’s why Mark Zuckerberg can wear the same T-shirt to work while Black women are punished for wearing braids. The rules are different for different people depending on wealth, race, or class. Professionalism is often used as an amorphous term designed to uphold a single (read: White) standard. So, while it may seem objective to expect people to look, act and, work a particular way, enforcing these standards can be an undue burden on marginalized identities. For Black women, in particular, navigating the workplace is tough.
However, the Covid-19 pandemic has seen upward of 42% of American workers working from home. Contact with colleagues and bosses has been relegated to emails, Slack messages, and the dreaded Zoom meeting. Expectations of professionalism are no longer relegated to the office but remote work presents itself with many unique challenges. Should I put on a nice blouse before this staff meeting? Which Zoom background covers up my apartment the best? Am I smiling enough? Should I respond to this late-night email so my boss thinks I’m always available?
Working remotely has provided an opportunity for Black women to flourish outside of the expectations of professionalism, simply by nature of not being hypervisible and held to standards that weren’t designed for us. So this begs the question: How has remote work changed what it means to be professional for working Black women?
Sade, a 29-year-old therapist living in Virginia, initially loved working from home, primarily due to the physical comfort. While working with students, she normally had to wake up at 5 a.m. for her commute to work. But working from home has taught her some valuable lessons about the expectations she used to adhere to when it comes to both management and appearance: “I don’t need a certain level of management to do my job… I’m doing my job in my pajamas and I’m doing it to the level I would if I were in a suit.”
Working remotely has provided an opportunity for Black women to flourish outside of the expectations of professionalism, simply by nature of not being hypervisible and held to standards that weren’t designed for us.
Celeste Faison, the director of campaigns at the National Domestic Workers Alliance, says that working from home has allowed her to be able to relax. “Going on Zoom and not having makeup on, or just having your hair in a ponytail… everybody has days where they’re like ‘there’s nowhere to go’.” Faison went on to say that the “tech startup look” is for White people. “Black folks and Black women aren’t given the privilege to be that relaxed in our clothing… there’s a pressure to always present your best self. It’s your Sunday best.”
Working from home, Black women are given flexibility when it comes to their appearance. From experimenting with different wigs and styles, to yes, wearing a bonnet during a Zoom call, not being in the office has given Black women newfound freedom. Through remote work, Black women can move away from the impossible standards that we have put on ourselves. And it’s not just in our physical appearance.
With overlapping crises of a global pandemic, unrelenting police violence, and general political turmoil, we are doing a much better job at giving each other — and more importantly, ourselves — more grace. “Often Black folk can’t mess up. We always need to be perfect. We can’t make a mistake, we’re representing the race,” Faison says. “Working remotely, everyone is trying to figure it out at the same time. People are more gracious with themselves and have taken some of that pressure off of themselves. Working remotely has given me more time to take care of myself,” Faison says.
However, it’s not all positive when it comes to the expectations around professionalism in the age of Covid-19 and remote work. Iné, a 22-year-old graduate student and nonprofit employee, laments the fact that her workspace and her home are now one and the same. “Boundaries have been impossible with everything being remote… I struggled, in the beginning, to figure out when I was going to cut myself off from looking at emails… I have to set boundaries with myself which I don’t know if I’ve mastered yet.” With Black women being expected to work twice as hard to be seen as competent as their peers, this blurring of boundaries can rear its head in the weirdest ways.
Sade was frank when talking about remote work and crossed boundaries. “You can go to the bathroom when you’re in the office and people won’t bother you… if you’re at home and you don’t respond to something immediately, you don’t have that personal boundary to say ‘hey, I’m actually in the restroom right now.’ That may be viewed as you not doing your job or being unprofessional.” While some may be able to take advantage of the privacy that at home work provides, for some, it’s like the panopticon. You never when someone has their attention on you.
With overlapping crises of a global pandemic, unrelenting police violence, and general political turmoil, we are doing a much better job at giving each other — and more importantly, ourselves — more grace.
However, the old way of work and professionalism have not been working for Black women a and what’s most insidious is because 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. These practices of disassociation can have negative effects on our performance at work and contribute to burnout.
Anne Petersen, author of Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, described the burnout associated with code-switching as the natural consequence of always being “on.” “In addition to all of the work you’re doing in the office as a worker, you’re doing the emotional labor of trying to fit into these expectations of what your voice should sound like, what your conversations with other people should sound like,” Petersen says. She went on to say that remote work allows you to worry less about those things and gives you the ability to focus on the things that actually matter. And for Black women, being able to disengage from those expectations can have benefits for themselves and their workplaces.
Eleni, a 22-year-old consultant, has said that the duty to be professional in the office makes it harder for people to be honest about how they’re feeling and frankly, who they are: “When I started working from home, I let go of professionalism and just started doing my job. I’ve fully dropped the airs of professionalism and started talking more candidly with my co-workers. They’ve gotten to know me more as a real person. And they know I can do my job just as well wearing sweatpants and eating lunch on a Zoom call.”
Whether we think working from home is a nice change of pace or hell on earth, one thing is clear. We can’t go back to the way things were before. It’s not impossible to replicate the feelings of comfort and flexibility we get from working from home.
The only thing standing in our way is hundreds of years of a Western, White supremacist work culture. So, we’ve got to get to work.