Workplaces can be sites of hostility – particularly for folks with marginalized identities. The same issues that occur outside work tend to show up inside of the workplace. There’s been substantial public dialogue addressing issues like sexual harassment, racial discrimination, wage gaps and problematic hiring practices. However, it’s also important to be able to identify the more ‘covert’ and innocuous presenting sources of hostility. This way we are able to interrupt them when we can and better take care of ourselves and each other in these environments. Here are a few of them –
I have a friend who works at a restaurant. Her manager recently took her to the side and told her she should reconsider wearing her rainbow queer affirming pins on her smock. He called it unprofessional. She pointed out the pins on all the other servers and called him hypocritical.
Professionalism is often presented as an objective standard of conduct. However, professionalism is not neutral. Who and what gets deemed un/professional is deeply entwined with normative ideals around race, gender, class, sexuality, etc. This entanglement frequently results in hostility towards folks with marginalized identities; hostilities presented as simple concerns about professionalism.
This can show up in so many ways. When I stopped getting a relaxer and went natural, the first thing my grandmother said to me was that I wouldn’t be able to get a job with my hair ‘looking the way it did.’ And even though I dismissed her, her opinion in not unwarranted. As NPR notes, “stories about Black women whose employers asked them to cut their dreadlocks or to trim their big afros have surfaced with more frequency in the last few years.” Black women have reported being told by their bosses that they should “wear a weave at work … (because their) natural hair is unprofessional.”
Whose hair sets this standard? What identities and bodies are considered the norm – the ideal to strive towards?
Under the guise of professionalism, women have been pressured to wear make up. Queer folks’ gender expression has been policed. People have been punished for showing emotions. Folks have been perceived as un/professional on the basis of their body size and shape. The banner of professionalism can mask multiple biases.
A couple months ago, my coworkers and I had a conversation about daily cleaning and maintenance of the office space. It was brought to our attention that it was the same two people time and again were doing most of the work. No one had intended for this to happen, but here we were. We figured out next steps, but also had an important talk about how our identities might be influencing this pattern of behavior.
Deeply embedded cultural expectations don’t just disappear once you walk in to the doors of a workplace. They linger. They get reproduced. These can pop up in so many ways. Who is listened to when they speak? Who gets interrupted? Who is assigned team leader? Who ends up doing most of the (unpaid) emotional labor? Who gets put in charge of coordinating the office party? It’s important to pay attention to these types of patterns in order to interrupt problematic dynamics that may be playing themselves out.
I’m lucky to work in an office with a team I adore. The folks around me are kind and self aware and put in the hard work to make the environment as inclusive and accessible as possible. I’m beyond grateful for them. I have also had enough jobs to know this is rare. Workplaces can be deeply lonely places.
There’s plenty written about the struggles of being the only Black person in an office, the only queer person, the only woman… Being in the minority at a workplace can result in dealing with incessant micro-aggressions and having to move through feelings of deep isolation.
I once had a boss who would praise folks for coming in when they were under the weather or who stayed late (without compensation). She would gush over these actions as evidence of a deep commitment to the job and displays of strong work ethic. It created a culture where people felt pressure to overwork.
Yes, at work we should do work (cuz folks got bills and such). However, often times the pursuit and celebration of ‘increased productivity’ can turn exploitative. Folks can end up being undercompensated for the actual amount of work they do. And feel compelled not to take their breaks or their vacation time. Productivity like professionalism is often presented as ‘good’ and ‘neutral,’ but it can also be deployed in ways that harm workers.
Workplaces are not immune from the problems that exist in the broader culture. We need to be aware of the issues and try to change them to be more inclusive, equitable, and accessible environments.[Feature Image: A brown-skinned individual with long curly black hair sits looks out of a window. Pexels.com]