A repeated illustration of a black woman in a brown skirt and white shirt in different posts.


Professionalism Is a Racist Construct

The entire concept of professionalism is mostly used to police the behavior and appearance of Black people in the workplace.

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The professional world has been working hard on its image of inclusion and “wokeness” for a while now. Scroll LinkedIn and you’ll see executives touting their latest DEI practices, enrichment opportunities, and sometimes even formidable statements on current events that undoubtedly affect their Black, brown, queer, disabled, and other marginalized employees more than others.

But how much of this messaging is just marketing magic? Will the professional world ever be a safe space for all?

In a recent essay for the UCLA Law Review titled, “Professionalism as a Racist Construct,” attorney and housing justice advocate Leah Goodridge digs into this question but specifically focuses on the issue of racism in the professional world.

What is professionalism? Who decides what professionalism is? Who is it applied to, and who gets to slide on it?

Her essay explains how the entire construct of “professionalism” is a tool of subjugation. It is used to police the behavior and appearance of Black people and not many others.

The idea of this intrigued me, and I wanted to speak with her to find out what brought her to this point. The conversation we had was lively and engaging. Here are some of the best parts.

For many people, the idea that professionalism could be a racist construct may feel alarmist, or at the very least unfamiliar. But as a Black woman, when I saw the title of your essay, I knew. What was the impetus for you to write this essay?

The impetus for me is my daily life as a Black woman navigating the professional world. I felt a little bit like Mary J. Blige when she’s had a breakup and she’s about to write a fire song? Every day would be some sort of microaggression, and I would think, “I’m going to put that in there. I’m going to put this in there.” Every day I was getting material to put in this essay.

It was a long time coming, but I think for me the impetus was having conflicted feelings, talking about it with a host of different people—including coworkers, friends and other people having the same feelings but having very different reactions to how they would navigate it, and it really made me look at it that and analyze why.

Unpack professionalism being a racist construct for us.

I think for me, the way I started thinking about it was, if I’m in a host of different incidents—whether I am in court interacting with opposing counsel or in the office and interacting with a colleague—in any circumstance, what I realized was that a white peer or opposing counsel could really act in any behavior or any manner that they so pleased. The thing is, professionalism is a standard, and the reason we have standards is to hold people accountable so when they eschew those standards, there is some type of accountability. So even in the circumstances where my white peers or opposing counsel were acting inappropriately or unprofessionally, it didn’t actually end in any accountability. It did not impact their reputation. Their reputation wasn’t that they were unprofessional, it was “oh, well you know, that’s how he is.”

I started thinking to myself, because I’m a strong personality, so it’s not like I’m in court and opposing counsel is yelling at me and I’m just standing there; sometimes I would say, “Hey, don’t speak to me that way,” and then all of a sudden when I match the behavior, it becomes, “Oh, whoa whoa whoa!”

So I started thinking, if professionalism doesn’t apply to them, and it only applies to me, why is that? It’s not even so much that there’s a double standard. Why does it exist? It goes beyond respectability. What is the purpose of me adhering to it?

When you look at it, it’s something that can be used against Black people and be easily dismissive of a Black person by saying, “Oh, well she’s unprofessional.”

There’s a section where I talk about the bias threshold. And I think this is really key. I met with a lot of older Black professional attorneys, and there was often this sort of ideology of “are you not tough enough? Are you not tough enough to handle this field? Racism is a fact of life, so if you can’t handle it…” and I wondered why is this something being turned around on me? Why weren’t we talking about how we can attack racism? Instead it became “you need to acclimate yourself,” and then it almost got to the point where I was thinking I should stop talking about this because people would think I’m not able to handle being an attorney and being in this field.

I wanted to talk about how so many people had internalized this ideology that having a thick skin made you professional, and being a “tough person” able to wear out racism and show that you were dignified proved that you were this “utmost professional.” For me it became, I don’t want to go high. I’m tired of that.

What are some of the tenets of so-called “professionalism” that you feel are directed specifically toward Black people in the workplace?

I think the bias threshold is a big one—this sort of being able to absorb and endure racism in all of its forms including microaggressions, and able to absorb it and be light-hearted about it and signal to the person engaging in the harmful behavior that it’s all good. “It’s OK. I forgive you. I’m dignified, and I’m laughing it off.” I think that is one of the main things that I recognized was part of this ideology of professionalism. The three words that I hear often are “play the game.” Something happens like someone calls you the wrong name, or identifies you as the wrong Black person and you get told “Play the game.” You aren’t supposed to bring up racism too much even though it happens every day. You are supposed to “play the game.” The threshold part is big.

The other part that comes up is what I call “selective offense.” People being extremely selective about what they are offended about, including people of color. What I’ve found is that people would normalize racist behavior. People would normalize homophobic behavior. People would normalize misogynistic behavior. People would normalize transphobic behavior.

The minute a Black person spoke up and called something out saying “This isn’t OK,” all of a sudden the conversation is about tone and whether this is appropriate and whether this is the right time to speak up and whether you are going to reach people by the way you are pushing back. All of those conversations that should have been had when the initial offensive conduct happened, all of a sudden the conversations were happening to scrutinize the reactions to the behavior rather than the behavior itself.

What I realized is that people are much more offended by me, a Black woman, challenging racism than by a white person perpetuating it.

White people are often more concerned with being thought of as a racist than they are with helping to dismantle racism, would you agree?

I have been a person who has called out racism, and here is what has happened to me. A good 80 percent of the time when I have done so, the immediate response is “Oh wait, are you calling me racist?”

What I’ve found is very demeaning is that in order for us to even dig in and begin the conversation about the conduct itself, we have to give out some sort of certificate that says “Hey! You’re not racist!” The thing is, that’s beside the point. The point is we are looking at your conduct and how your behavior harms other people. Part of racism is putting the feelings of who is in power above the feelings of those who are being harmed.

The reason you and I started having this conversation is because of the behavior of some GOP senators during the confirmation of Ketanji Brown Jackson to the U.S. Supreme Court. It was a horrible display, and if Black people had done it, there would have been an uproar. Can you speak to how you felt watching that?

The first thing that really bothered me about the hearings was this was so symbolic of what I wrote about in the essay. The first question is why didn’t someone step in during the hearing and say, “This line of questioning or the way you’re questioning or your tone is inappropriate. Please stop.” I think the answer to that some would say is, “Oh well we want her to be confirmed, and part of her being confirmed is that she is going to have to go through this and get confirmed.” That’s the bias threshold. She’s expected to endure that, but why?

I know that during the confirmation hearings of Sotomayor and Kagan there were microaggressions, but I don’t remember them being to the same degree as what happened with Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson.

Watching it was painful, because you are seeing what a lot of Black women see, which is being harmed, being humiliated, being denigrated, being spoken over, being disrespected, everyone is watching, and you’re by yourself. Nobody is jumping in. Cory Booker jumped in afterwards, and I’m very thankful for that.

That questioning, however, went on for days. There is a historical connection to harming people of color in a public setting as a form of entertainment. So you go back in history and look at photos of lynching. First of all, there’s a crowd. That’s number one. Second of all, you’re going to see a lot of smiling faces, including children—all of them white. Things most of us understand as grotesque, as inhumane, as evil—were forms of entertainment when it was legal.

Even today, when you watch some reality TV, the dysfunction is a form of entertainment. So when we see in the workplace a Black woman being screamed at, being denigrated—it’s a form of entertainment for a lot of people, and sometimes it’s not just for white people.

There is a specific thing with Black women where it’s a form of entertainment to denigrate, to humiliate, to embarrass, to yell, to speak over—where it’s not just socially acceptable, but it’s funny because you are “checking” someone and it’s entertaining.

And then we are put in the position of praising a Black woman for maintaining her composure in a very stressful situation that honestly, if it were anything other than a Senate confirmation hearing, some of those people would have gotten cussed the fuck out.

Right. She was in her workplace. And I’m glad you made that point. Cause see, if it was Walgreens, if it was somewhere else, it would have been a different reaction. But my whole point in writing this essay is that people are readily aware that the workplace is the one place where you can exact violence on Black people and there is no self defense. Because that’s the whole point of “professionalism.” You’ll lose your job. That’s professionalism as a racist construct.

So it’s almost as if “professionalism” is used as a measure to control.

Yep. Not only is professionalism a double standard in how it’s applied, but the actual standard itself is grounded in a set of beliefs that are meant to control and subjugate people of color, including Black people. It’s not just about appearance like your hair, and colors you wear, the lipstick colors that you wear, things like that, it’s also in behavior and how you react and how you navigate. So it is a form of control in every sense of the word—in your physical being and how you are literally navigating the professional world.

This evening, Leah and I will be joined by Michael Harriot and Dr. Jessical Isom in a Twitter Space to discuss professionalism as a racist construct. The space starts at 8 p.m. ET. Please tune in to hear this brilliant discussion.


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