January 30, 2022

Wise-Rojas | Why Professionalism Has Racist Roots, and How to Cope With It at Cornell

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It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when you’re in a new space like an elite school. You see Hotelies wearing “professional” outfits every Friday and overhear students discussing buying expensive suits and outfits for their dream internship interview. The amount of hierarchical systems like admissions offices leads to a weird feeling of inferiority, as if you can’t have a real conversation with anyone. Sometimes you have to hold yourself back from doing simple things because it’s “unprofessional.” 

But who defines this standard of professionalism? My latest epiphany: professionalism is a social construct upheld by whiteness in predominantly white spaces and elite institutions like Cornell in today’s world. “Westernness” teaches its own superiority to other cultures, and it’s difficult not to internalize it. 

It seems radical to compare standards of professionalism to white supremacy and its roots, but hear me out – here’s what sparked this epiphany. 

Sitting at the desk in my dorm, I stared at the bowl of cereal I made to get going for the day while on a Zoom call. I was in an interview to become a resident advisor for next semester, and there was an awkward moment of silence when my interviewer took notes in between my responses. My stomach grumbled; reading the (virtual) room, I asked my interviewer if it was okay to eat my cereal in between responses. Laughing, he told me “of course.”

When it was my turn to ask questions, I asked, “What’s the funniest thing you’ve seen during an RA interview?” I was moderately stunned when he replied, “You eating cereal, honestly.” I acknowledged how I knew it wasn’t the most “professional” thing. Then he elaborated on how professionalism has racist roots, to begin with, and we shouldn’t put much stake in it anyway.

My brain took note of this, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since. It’s something that most people don’t think twice about. Everyone tries to be “professional” when they need to. But what exactly does being “professional” mean? It means adhering to standards that don’t exist in other spheres outside of primarily white ones. 

Eating during classes and interviews seems “unprofessional” according to Western standards. In a similar way, Western standards deem eating with one’s hands (or non-fork things) “unprofessional” or “unclean,” though that’s normal in some Asian cultures. What makes it “unprofessional” is not the act itself, but its non-white context. 

This train of thought all began because I was hungry and felt like my interview wasn’t going horribly. If anything, I thought it would help my interviewer see that I was a real person. To believe that cereal indicates how real I am is insane, but it makes sense in our professional context. 

The Stanford Social Innovation Review published a piece called “The Bias of ‘Professionalism’ Standards” by Aysa Gray. Among other subjects, Gray described how whiteness plays out in workplaces and other “professional” spaces.

She writes, “The story unfolds many ways: in white and Western standards of dress and hairstyle (straightened hair, suits but not saris, and burqa and beard bans in some countries); in speech, accent, word choice, and communication (never show emotion, must sound “American,” and must speak white standard English); in scrutiny (Black employees are monitored more closely and face more penalties as a result); and in attitudes toward timeliness and work style.”

Gray’s article also notes, “People with nonwhite sounding names find it more difficult to get responses to their job applications,” according to the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Sometimes people in a work environment hear a language other than English and don’t think it’s “appropriate.” Gray discussed a president of a human resources consulting firm who thought it was “hostile” when a language aside from English was used in the workplace. 

“Often behind such descriptions is xenophobia,” Gray writes, “which creates a work environment biased toward white professionalism. Research finds that people with a non-native accent — one that does not sound white or American — face a glass ceiling, negatively impacting their promotion trajectory.”

Essentially, everything we know about being “professional” involves being more white. Speak perfect English. Have straight hair (forget about colored hair and tattoos, that’s just horrendous, even if your tattoo is connected to your Native American heritage). Be a specific body shape and size (when the metrics of BMI were already connected to white bodies without consideration for groups like Latina women, who sometimes have naturally curvy bodies). Don’t take breaks. Grind and grind. Eating on the job could get you fired, even though eating is a natural part of being a human. 

I’m pretty sure most people of color had some form of culture shock coming to Cornell. I know I did. It’s almost as if the whiteness is scary. I went to a predominantly Asian public school in the Bay Area. I’m a queer, biracial, neurodivergent Latina; I was so used to being around other nonwhite cultures, even if they weren’t my own. I never had to navigate feeling socially and culturally excluded based on who I am alone. I coped by finding my communities (as I’ve written about in a previous column) within Cornell at large. I think that I and the communities I’m a part of agree that some things, such as Latinx people side-kissing on the cheek to greet people, that are “normal” to us wouldn’t be “professional.” 

My advice is to forget about Western expectations of professionalism. It can be challenging. People will look at you oddly. But then, others will start to follow your lead. I now eat in classes whenever I want (given that it’s COVID safe, of course). I dress however I want. I embrace my culture(s) whenever I want. It shouldn’t have taken me 18 years to get there, but it did. If you are white, allow other people to follow your lead by breaking the boundaries yourself and creating safe spaces for people of color. Learn to hold institutions accountable. Just because Cornell accepted you doesn’t mean you have to stay silent anytime you feel out of place here. You don’t owe anyone anything except respect. 

Daniela Wise-Rojas ’25 is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected] Anything But MunDANIties runs every other Monday this semester.