Professionalism and Code-Switching

Lately I’ve been having lots of conversations about norms, code-switching, professionalization, and what our job is as teachers to model and suggest. I’ve written on the blog about code-switching as a skill that my students generally lack and that I think is useful for them. Others have countered, though, saying we should focus on changing norms rather than forcing conformity, a message I endorse and yet … how do I tell one of my students that they should be the one to make that change?

I don’t have any answers today, but thanks to a piece I first saw from Eric Grollman, have more grist for the mill.

In Huffington Post, Jacob Tobia writes about professionalism in, “Why I am genderqueer, professional, and unafraid.” He writes:

Professionalism is a funny term, because it masquerades as neutral despite being loaded with immense oppression. As a concept, professionalism is racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, classist, imperialist and so much more — and yet people act like professionalism is non-political. Bosses across the country constantly tell their employees to ‘act professionally’ without a second thought. Wear a garment that represents your non-Western culture to work? Your boss may tell you it’s unprofessional. Wear your hair in braids or dreadlocks instead of straightened? That’s probably unprofessional too. Wear shoes that are slightly scuffed because you can’t yet afford new ones? People may not think you’re being professional either.

Tobia, as it turns out, is wearing dresses, heels, and makeup. Read more of his story at the link.

I just think this is a very clear articulation with the problem of professionalism, but I still feel like I should teach my students to be able to code-switch, as it will help them. I do not have a solution to this conundrum.

My friend Jenn, when discussing this on Facebook, also linked to this useful piece on US Military hairstyles and the reactions of African-American women. The army has come out with new guidelines, many of which do not accomodate non-white non-straight hair. Here’s the line that I thought was important:

In a written statement, the army said: “The intention of uniform policies is to ensure soldiers’ appearance reflects the highest level of professionalism.
“None of the new standards, whether pertaining to tattoos, grooming, jewellery, etc, are designed to discriminate against any gender, race, or ethnic background.”

I’m sure this is true. I’m sure they weren’t designed to discriminate. But they still discriminate.

And here, because African-American women make up a substantial number of our service-women, it looks like instead of forcing soldier to confirm, codes are being switched to accommodate difference.

The backlash led the Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to call for a policy review at the end of April, giving military leaders three months to evaluate comprehensive regulations as they pertain to black women.

None of this lets me know what I should do in the classroom in terms of teaching and modeling code-switching. I still think it’s useful. I still think it’s oppressive. Any thoughts?

Leave a Reply