White Professionalism and Code Switching: How White Supremacy is Sustained in the Workforce

By Sam Stroozas

Image Credit: Brad Amorosino

Image Credit: Brad Amorosino

White Professionalism has become the norm in many business settings. It is thought of as the concrete outline that employees and employers must follow in order to have a cohesive workplace atmosphere. The mold is only functional for certain people, and that is those with the highest professionalism privilege; white people. White professionalism relies on eurocentric features and heightened racial awareness in the workplace setting by creating further division through what is defined as ‘appropriate’ and what is seen as the ‘other.’

These social constructs of white professionalism did not just occur, but have been elongated through years of white dominated infrastructure. Professionalism is about appearing the most white and the least poor you can present. It originates from white supremacy and articulates oppression through the workplace and beyond.

In an article on Everyday Feminism by Carmen Rios, they talk about how the office scene is only for certain identities, Rios says, “People like me – queer people, women, people of color, working-class people – aren’t supposed to be comfortable when we’re being professional. Not to go all ‘anti-capitalist regime,’ but professionalism is a tool of the elite to keep work forces ‘in their place’ – and often, that place is defined in opposition to communities of color, queer culture, and the actual working class. Professionalism reinforces a lot of ugly ‘isms’ and often intrudes in our lives silently and without any expectation of objection.”

Professionalism exists as a gateway that promotes further discrimination and permits division. It is reliant on elitism, and classism, and it masks implicit bias into work day attire, rules, and customs. No one really knows what a ‘work outfit’ consists of. It looks different for different people, different types of jobs, and different income levels. Many offices require semi-formal or formal dress codes but do not account for their newer employees who may have had lower paying jobs beforehand. The structure around what is ‘workplace appropriate’ and what is not does not consider wealth or accessibility because the rules are created by people who never have to worry about these issues.  

Dress codes encourage code-switching for marginalized identities as they condemn originality and personality. Rios writes, “Often, these dress codes make ‘professional’ realms exclusive to people who can’t afford to look a certain way when they leave the house, and often those dress codes are meant to create a visual hierarchy between ‘professional’ people and the rest of the world. I live in Washington, DC, and this city is a huge suit store. It’s assumed that you have a blazer hanging in your office at all times if you’re like me and you don’t wear one to work, and the rest of the masses trudge back and forth in rain, sleet, and snow in impractical dress clothes and shoes. It’s not that all of the lawyers, lobbyists, politicians, and nonprofit sector employees here need to wear this stuff to work – it’s that the power structures in place here demand us to wear this stuff to earn respect. I’m not into that. One of the reasons I’ll put on that blazer in my office is to head to Capitol Hill. If I’m going to a meeting or an event in or around the halls of Congress or the White House, it’s expected that I show up dressed to the nines. This stirs up a lot of questions. Why can’t elected officials take me seriously in my actual clothes, being my actual self? Why do I have to dress a certain way just to interact with them?

Code-switching is the central epidemic of white professionalism, Theresa Avila writes in Girlboss, “For women, people of color and those simply with a background not typically represented at their workplace, code-switching becomes a means towards an end. That is, alternating the language used at work is sometimes seen as a necessary practice for fitting in and possibly advancing professionally.”

This alternating language leads to many identity conflicts and reinforces the unison of a white hierarchy. Jonathan Rosa, a linguistic anthropologist and an assistant professor at Stanford University says code switching is “Wrapped up in our concerns about our own—and others’— language use is an inherent set of power relations and dynamics. It’s what leads to only certain populations being ‘marked,’ for their language usage, while others can fly by unnoticed. We create a model of personhood that becomes the default. And that can be problematic, since the imagined model of professionalism ends up drawing on a range of stereotypes associated with race, class, and gender.”

Professionalism further circulates as a model to govern a body of people and focus on exclusion. Code-switching looks different for everybody and it occurs it differing situations. Katiuscia Gray commented in an Essence article on why code-switching remains a contender, “They don’t want to show their ‘Black side.’ I don’t even know what a Black side is, but that’s what I’ve heard. They code-switch to make white people feel more comfortable and I feel no matter how comfortable you make them feel, at the end of the day, we’re still Black.” Gray says “Many people of color talk in a different tone of voice to not only conceal their blackness, but also don’t want to be deemed as the ‘angry Black woman’ or the fear of ‘getting in trouble’ when it’s time to voice their opinion. There is a sweet spot where one can be their authentic self at work in regards to style and tone of voice, while still maintaining a sense of respectability, professionalism, and assertiveness.”

Some companies such as Google and Twitter have created diverse employee resources such as “Black Googler Network” and “Blackbirds” to help discuss inclusion issues in the workplace. Essense says that these companies are, “employee resource groups made up of individuals who join together based on common interests, backgrounds or demographic factors such as gender, race or ethnicity, according to Society to Human Resource Management (SHRM).”

Acting white is often seen as a strategy to be seen in the workplace or society, and a huge part of this strategy that is often reinforced is the presentation of hair. Primarily Black women face discrimination in the workplace because of their natural hair. In an article by Ludmila Leiva in Refinery29, they talk about the comments and connotation that surrounds being Black women and wearing your natural hair, Leiva writes, “Today, Black women continue to face discrimination in the workplace. Whether it's racial bias and stereotyping, microaggressions from coworkers and superiors, or disproportionate instances of sexual harassment, Black women often experience a very different version of the workplace compared to their white — or even non-Black people of color — counterparts.These dynamics are particularly pronounced when it comes to hair. Today, the natural hair movement means that more Black women than ever are embracing their natural hair textures, which often means routinely switching up their aesthetics and using protective styles, like wigs, twists, and braids. Unfortunately, this also means dealing with an influx of unwanted commentary from other people in the office.”

This is an issue that presents itself in many forms of media but came into mainstream when Brittany Noble, a news anchor at WJTV, a station in Mississippi was fired after filing reports about discrimination in the workplace.

Noble quoted, “After having my son, I asked my news director if I could stop straightening my hair. A month after giving me the green light I was pulled back into his office. I was told ‘My natural hair is unprofessional and the equivalent to him throwing on a baseball cap to go to the grocery store.’ He said, ‘Mississippi viewers needed to see a beauty queen.’”

Noble went on to say, “I hope that corporations will take a look at their policies and handbooks. I want to help news organizations diversify their product because America is counting on us. Our newsrooms should reflect the community we serve. We’ve got to find ways to work together. My story is so much bigger than hair."

White professionalism not only infiltrates the lives of marginalized identities but it actively works to instill a racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic and ableist community in our workforce and society. There must be a fluid understanding of the intersection of identities and how we can create a world that works for all of those living within it, not just the peak of the white cooperate population.