Every time I stare at my resume, I wince at my name in bright, bold letters — a name so clearly ethnic that anglicizing or deriving a white-sounding pseudonym is impossible.
This is just one example of the many ways Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) are expected to acclimate to white standards in order to maintain professionalism. Professionalism encompasses expected actions, behaviors and self-presentations in the workplace, often including dialect, appearance and other key markers of identity. The need for professionalism is often attributed to fostering a respectful culture or promoting the image of the organization. However, in reality, this only pushes BIPOC to conform to white standards. The idea of professionalism exists to uphold white-dominated workplaces and covertly discriminate against BIPOC.
Notions of professionalism hurt BIPOC before they even step foot in the workplace. Employers often discriminate against BIPOC by their name alone. In one study, researchers sent out resumes for Black and Asian individuals, some of which indicated their race and others which were “whitened,” meaning any identification markers of their race were erased. They found that the whitened applications got twice as many responses, even though all other information on the resumes was identical. In fact, even organizations that touted pro-diversity statements and encouraged minority applicants discriminated against BIPOC applicants at similar rates.
Another way individuals are expected to be professional is simply based on their voice, which encompasses accents, dialect and tonal inflection. As such, linguistic discrimination also pervades all facets of life. In one study, linguist John Baugh called landlords in five different cities using either standard English, Chicano English or African American Vernacular English (AAVE). He found that in predominantly white areas such as San Francisco, he secured viewing appointments about 40% more often when using standard English than either Chicano English or AAVE. But linguistic discrimination doesn’t only reduce housing access — it worsens treatment in the education system, day-to-day life and the job market. Research further indicates that AAVE is often stigmatized, while people who speak with British accents are assumed to be intelligent. Such linguistic discrimination brands white individuals’ way of speaking as superior and benefits white individuals at the expense of BIPOC.
Often, the notion of a composed and professional appearance maintains white domination. Historically, people of color have faced frequent discrimination or outright isolation for their natural hair. This has manifested in outright bans in classrooms and workplaces of natural hairstyles, such as dreadlocks, twists and braids. For decades, Black women have had to expend time, money and effort to adapt their hair to Eurocentric beauty standards, merely because their natural look is deemed “unprofessional” or an “aggressive statement.” The natural hair movement, along with several state laws banning hair-based discrimination, has made progress in ending professionalism’s maintenance of white supremacy. But it’s far from enough.
This sense of professionalism extends to all aspects of identity and disproportionately hurts BIPOC. Expecting this professionalism from employees favors those who grew up with the access, wealth and privilege necessary to learn these social cues.
We shouldn’t have to change any part of ourselves to suit white-dominated workplaces. And even if we wanted to, how could any of us possibly erase every part of our identity that screams “minority”? Changing our names? Spending hours straightening hair? Erasing our identities from our resumes and cover letters? Sometimes I wish that my name didn’t sound ethnic so that I could send out whitened resumes, but the truth is that I shouldn’t even have to try to erase my identity just to get a job offer.
Employers and organizations must reevaluate their discriminatory practices both in hiring and within their workplace. Forcing them to do that is on us. Assess the demographics of the institutions of which you’re a part, create resources and policies to uplift BIPOC voices and check your own implicit biases. Standardize hiring practices to ensure equity and inclusion. Make diversity initiatives in recruitment and anti-racism a priority, not an afterthought. Most of all, question what you consider professional and how that might be discriminatory.
Brammhi Balarajan (23C) is from Las Vegas.