Why Your Definition Of ‘Professionalism’ Might Be Problematic

Why Your Definition of ‘Professionalism’ Might Be Problematic

By Fadzai Nzuwa

April 2022

When it comes to characterising professionalism the reality of structural & cultural exclusion is often overlooked.

Thumbnail illustration by Tiffany Zhong

Thumbnail illustration by Tiffany Zhong

“We’ll disagree to agree”.

This was the closing statement that marked the end of what had been a rather extensive and contentious yet sobering discussion between my white, male, straight, affluent friend and I.

Now, before you swipe left to this article under the presumption that this is yet another Leftist’s attack on straight white males, you should know that this is in fact, merely a critic of the ignorant ones.

Sylvester Stallone’s eyebrows, Facebook’s devolution to cultural irrelevancy and full cream milk were some of the affairs conversed, before an unassuming question prompted a lengthy debate: “Do you recognise that you are likely to be automatically deemed more professional as a result of your whiteness?” In pure liberalist fashion, I assumed that this sentiment was the objective truth, but with arms crossed and a smug almost cavalier tone, crowned with a self-congratulatory demeanour he acknowledged the reality of white privilege as a concept, while simultaneously absolving himself from his own white privilege. Needless to say, I was shook.

But that’s neither here nor there. What really caused the most dissension was his contention that professionalism had “nothing to do” with race or structural oppression but rather-work ethic, character and reliability. And while in the idyllic world this would be true–we are far from one. He went on to maintain that as a woman of colour in a creative-based industry; I should just work towards “a positive attitude”. In that moment I was instantly overcome with such gratitude, for this was the revelation that I had needed my entire existence, in order to break out of the racism matrix. Who would’ve thought that all along I had been my own stumbling block and not the oppressive systems put in place decades before me.

Moments during and after the exchange I was livid and frustrated. While the anger has absolved the frustration still remains. This exchange highlighted that for some, perhaps even most; denial is a mechanism that works to evade accountability and responsibility. A mechanism which exacerbates racial colour blindness, respectability politics, micro-aggressions, white power structures and ultimately oppression. While professionalism should be defined by work ethic, character and reliability, in our cultural, racial and political context, the true essence of professionalism is repression of behaviour, culture and conduct.

The definition of professionalism was ordained with a particular gender, race and class in mind. Professionalism is a very specific way of dressing, speaking and acting which over time has resulted in a power structure that ultimately demands homogeneity and assimilation or results in exclusion.

While I can only be so “positive”, it is not my responsibility alone to have to dismantle systems and hierarchies that actively work against me. It is up to those, who put the systems in place, perpetuate those systems and/or benefit off of those systems to no longer be comfortable in ignorance. While such conversations are difficult to bring up and at best uncomfortable to sit thorough; they work to enlighten, affirm, correct, teach and initiate understanding and eventually bring about that “positive attitude”.

You can find more of Fadzai’s work here.