OPINION: The unfortunate relationship between racism and professionalism

Isaac Werner  

[email protected]  

     Creativity tends to have difficulty thriving in a modern society crumbling under late-stage capitalism. Whether it is in the educational sphere or the workplace, workers are urged to remain professional. In this context, professional tends to equate to sameness, the status quo, undisruptive.  

     So, when speaking on the unprofessional state of body modifications, we turn towards the supposed attack on personal creativity. With creative people wanting to express those abilities, tattooing and piercing have been deemed satisfactory avenues for them. The satisfactory does not translate into the work environment. So, it seems like an obvious attack on self-expression, right?  

     Well, yes and no.  

     The stigma against body modifications, particularly tattoos, existed long before our typical 9 to 5 office jobs. It is a part of something much bigger and more dangerous than many can expect.  

     The culture behind professionalism is — to put it simply — racist. To slim yourself down to just an echo of the person you are is the unspoken requirement for employment. For white people, this can often mean investing in business attire that is uncomfortable to wear. For people of color, the racism of professionalism often scrutinizes things as simple as their names, the way they speak and even their natural hair.  

     So, it is safe to say that the negativity surrounding body modifications is an unfortunate byproduct of racism.  

     The art of piercing originated in Native American, Indian and other cultures deemed “primitive” through imperialism and colonization, which were perpetuated by the same group of people who have created the culture of professionalism. Native Americans were considered lower class, with that piercings were considered lower class and unprofessional.  

     A study titled “The Commodification of Body Modification” was conducted by Gary S. Foster and Richard L. Hummel, presented at the 2000 annual meeting of the Midwest Sociological Society. The abstract provided by the researchers summarizes how racism and professionalism intertwine: 

     “From a western bias, the more extreme body modification, with roots in non-western traditions, is often cast as radical, as a stigma symbol because of historical association with deviant or marginal groups.”  

     Simply put, Western bias undoubtably determines what is professional and what is not. When Western culture is the sole decider of what counts as professional and unprofessional, racism will always prevail in order to keep the space of professionalism comfortable and convenient for white workers.  

     Whatever prevents people of color from progressing in society is a win for Western cultures, so employers often see no problem with making sure workers remain professional.  

     These expectations for workers of color also further enhance late-stage capitalism. Workers are forced to adhere to a specific dress code, which affects the way they dress and present themselves. At first, it’s not a big deal. Just wear business attire? No problem. Just come in clean-shaven, and keep hair uncovered? No problem.  

     Except for when it is.  

     Workers have turned into a commodity themselves, faceless and nameless tools to create profit that they rarely reap the benefits of. This, alongside the racism behind professionalism, provides the perfect way to keep employment and livable wages accessible to only a specific group of people.