Professionalism through the Lens of a Mexican-American Woman: Not Meeting the (White) Standards of Professionalism

In 2018, I received the following feedback:  “How you interact with *Tony in the office could be seen as unprofessional to folks who don’t understand your relationship. Sometimes it just comes off as really intense and aggressive. What if the Provost walked in and observed that interaction?”

Receiving constructive feedback from a supervisor can feel like a jab at one’s ego. What if your supervisor is a White woman who doesn’t seem to understand that your “professionalism” is going to look differently based on the identities you hold? Microaggressions are common obstacles that women and/or people of color face while working at predominantly White institutions. 

This experience is one worth sharing so that others who might experience something similar can relate, and so that supervisors who work with women and/or people of color, can gain a new perspective on how certain feedback is interpreted. I would like to provide readers with some context about my life at the time of this feedback.

It was the end of my first year as a graduate student. I was feeling proud and accomplished– as a first-generation college student from a low-income background, just being in a graduate program was a magical accomplishment. Let alone successfully completing a year’s worth of coursework and assistantship work. I was feeling really proud of myself, the imposter syndrome had begun to fade and I was really beginning to feel more comfortable as a new professional. At first, I felt silly for letting one comment hurt me so much. But after some reflection, I was able to explain why this feedback was so hurtful and that is what I would like to share with you all today.

You see, the delivery of this kind of feedback and the identities of the person who gave the feedback were factors that contributed to how I internalized the message. So often we hear stories in the media and from our colleagues and friends about White folks attempting to control/change the behavior of those who hold diverse identities and cultural backgrounds. It is important to point out that on the receiving end of this form of social regulation, we become survivors of microaggressions that are rooted in systemic oppression. This attempt to control/change behavior that is not “White-people-approved” is the same type of microaggression that disproportionately impacts our Black and Latino youth when we look at the negative impacts of the school-to-prison-pipeline.

I recently attended the 2020 Annual Conference for Association for Student Conduct Administration in Washington, D.C. Alexandra Hughes, Assistant Director, Student Rights and Responsibilities at the University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley gave a stellar presentation titled “The School to Prison Pipeline… Is Your Office a Contributor?” Alexandra spoke about the link between harsh disciplinary policies that disproportionately impact young people from disadvantaged communities and how this is reflected in the rates of incarceration of Black and Latino students. A relevant example is when disciplinary policies are designed in such a way that make it so that young people might be suspended from school for talking back or having an attitude. This results in a ripple effect that can result in the internalization of stereotypes about certain groups. 

For people of color, social institutions, like school and the workplace, are often filled with hidden curriculums and rules that we are expected to know and follow. What people do not recognize is that these rules were not designed or implemented with our cultural wealth in mind. This concept is rooted in the same idea that resulted in the regulation of my professionalism. Although the intention of my supervisor was not to cause harm, my interpretation of her feedback resulted in the internalization of certain stereotypes about Mexican women. This made me feel as though I needed to change who I was, or else I would not be successful. My supervisor’s feedback was not rooted in hatred or evil… however, had she sought to understand me instead of asking me to change who I was, the impact would have been less harmful.

Alexandra Hughes spoke about the importance of asking questions to gain a better understanding of students’ behavior and to avoid the reinforcement and internalization of stereotypes. When we ask questions, we address the root of the problem and not the behavior. What would it have looked like if instead of trying to regulate or control behavior with harsh disciplinary policies/feedback and White standards, we placed ourselves in the humanity of those who we do not understand? 

If my supervisor would have taken a moment to ask me about my friendship and mentorship with *Tony, she would know that he had become like a big brother to me. Siblings argue… but love each other. If my supervisor would have asked me about my culture, she would know that I’m brown and we are loud–loud is different, not wrong. If my supervisor would have asked me how she could support my professionalism, she would have known that there is a hidden curriculum of White professionalism that women and/or people of color are not clued in on. The reason why microaggressions are so hurtful is because they attack our identities, things that feel innate to us. In my case, I was not receiving feedback for my work ethic, my creativity, my timeliness or even the quality of my work– I felt I was being criticized for being me.

So, what is professionalism? Are you considering  the identities of the person you are giving feedback to? Are you taking your own identities into consideration? Before giving feedback, do you seek to understand behavior prior to correcting it? Do you recognize certain behavior in yourself at the workplace that would be perceived differently if you were a woman or person of color? These questions are so important and would make all the difference for women like me.

It is time to stop policing women and/or people of color in the workplace because they do not fit White standards of professionalism. When I received this feedback, it made me feel as though I needed to change who I was in order to be successful. But then I talked to *Tony… and he helped me realize it’s quite the opposite. I am worthy of being in this field. I am brown, I am loud and I am capable!

*Tony is a pseudonym used to protect the identity of a colleague for the purposes of this blog post.

Gemma Navarro (she, her, hers) is a Coordinator for Student Conduct and Community Standards at OSU. You can connect with her through email at gemma.navarro@oregonstate.edu

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