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  • Writer's pictureBreinn Richter, MBA

The Performance of Professionalism - Part One

One of my favorite definitions of culture comes from Schein (2004), who describes organizational culture as “a pattern of shared basic assumptions that was learned by a group as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems” (p. 17).

When you layer an analysis of race on top of this definition of organizational culture, you begin to uncover the many ways in which organizations, either implicitly or explicitly, uphold White supremacy. Like I’ve said before, Whiteness is the water we are all swimming in, and our organizations are quite often just a microcosm of society at large. To me, the more concerning piece here is identifying how Whiteness influences the process of organizational socialization (a HUGE component of culture): how we, as organizational leaders, teach new members how to “correctly” “integrate” into the space. Think about recruitment/hiring for “fit” and the onboarding process at your company - it literally starts on day one.

Recently I’ve been generating awareness in myself and others around the idea of professionalism, how I use that ideal to judge how professional I think someone is, and how the entire process is steeped in notions of White supremacy. The majority of scholarship in this area focuses on how employees of color navigate predominantly White workplaces and the performance of the “professional pose”. Jackson (2019) defines the “professional pose” as the styles, behaviors, and practices meant to contradict negative racial stereotypes within middle-class, White professional settings which is often seen as necessary, exhausting, and traumatic for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC). These behaviors range from downplaying or withholding one’s emotions, paying close attention to clothing and speaking habits, and an overall hyper-awareness of self-presentation (Jackson, 2019). The cumulative stress and trauma resulting from the physical, mental and emotional labor it takes to "fit", is well documented across a number of interdisciplinary fields.

There is a lot of research out there documenting the BIPOC experience inside predominantly White organizations, but as leaders, we shouldn't demand someone prove their trauma before we do something to make our organizations more equitable. My main goal (as a White organizational consultant) is to study the work of BIPOC writers, scholars, and activists and work collectively to critically center and problematize the role of Whiteness in organizations - and in this series, what’s deemed “professional” according to the norms and standards of White supremacy culture.

Tattoos? Piercings? Another notorious double standard for what is considered "professional."

Tema Okun (2021), of Dismantling Racism Works, published an update of her original work which takes an in-depth look at the characteristics of White supremacy culture in organizations. I will spend the next several weeks here on the blog breaking down and expanding Okun’s work. Because Whiteness shows up in the attitudes and behaviors of ALL of us (remember that water?), organizations often unconsciously prioritize these norms and standards, making it difficult, if not downright impossible, to accept other cultural norms and standards. Thus, what will be outlined over the next few weeks will be relevant to any group or organization - whether it's White-led, predominantly-white, People of Color-led, or predominantly-people of color.

Hopefully over the course of the next few installments of this series, you’ll glean some nuggets that you can apply within your own organizations, or at the very least make you think about how White supremacy culture shows up in your daily life. Stay tuned for more!


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