Defying European Cultural Norms in the Professional World
by Ashley Franks ‘17
On many occasions, when taking an important phone call or going out for a big interview, I’ve noticed a subconscious effort, on my part, to hyper-articulate or to stiffen my posture. I’ve found myself making sure not to speak too loudly and to omit any cultural jargon that might give away the fact that I come from the “ghetto.”
For a long time, I didn’t know exactly where this came from or what it meant on a macro level. All I knew was that, on a micro level, it seemed to yield more opportunity and in some ways made me feel safer. I knew that if I was ever in an emergency and needed to call 911 that they would come faster if I sounded more “professional.” I never really questioned why I didn’t perceive my own voice as professional. I had just kind of accepted that it wasn’t.
Maybe it was the fact that, as a kid, I noticed all of my aunts did it too. They put on the “voice” whenever they took important calls or whenever we were shopping and they needed to speak with a store manager. The “voice” was soft, docile, less expressive. It worked. My cousins and I would joke about them and say, “They are so fake. They know damn well that ain’t how they talk.” We both knew that as soon as we got home, our aunts would unveil their authentic selves and resume their screaming and yelling, as per usual.
However, childhood oblivion never told my cousin and me that someday we, too, would have an “alternate voice.” That what our aunts were doing had deeper implications and that someday we, too, would feel so unprotected in our own bodies that we would try to assume the body of another. That one day we would be wearing a figurative mask, only taking it off to breathe when we got home or when we got around other people who look like us. We were not prepared to navigate a world where everything we are and know is considered unprofessional and inadequate.
It wasn’t until I got to college and began my studies in sociology that I was able to critically analyze this all-too-common shift that myself and other black folks around me were familiarizing ourselves with. Something I once identified as a universal tactic used to gain rewards, was always cultural erasure. I realized that professional spaces often demand qualifications that are not typical of people from urban poverty neighborhoods. I learned that what makes a candidate “hirable” on an application or “polished” to an employer is almost always measured by European standards. Furthermore, I was hit by the harsh reality that I, myself, along with many other black people don’t fit these standards.
Hence, minority folks are expected to suppress and negate our own culture to assimilate to a Eurocentric society, often at the sake of being denied resources which are integral to survival. For some of us, this means straightening our hair for an interview even if we will incur heat damage, or wearing smaller earrings to work even if we don’t like them, or speaking more softly to our colleagues even if our loud voices aren’t aggressive, or wearing less culturally symbolic clothing, even if it’s something that make us happy. Another example: although in urban communities a “dap” is perceived as a greeting or form of respect, by Eurocentric standards a dap is seen as ghetto or improper. Accordingly, we settle on the expectation that a “hirable candidate” will not greet their employer with a dap.
Essentially, institutions are teaching black people to unlearn our authentic culture - that which ultimately dictates how we see ourselves and the world around us - just so that we may have access to opportunity. Sadly, when we give into these pressures and erase our culture, we are committing the act of erasing ourselves.
So the question becomes, “Should I walk into an interview with my Afro out, hoop earrings on, and Dashiki swangin’?” All at the expense of losing out on opportunity? For me, the answer is “Absolutely.” We must not compromise our liberty to free expression. We should be spending far less time shrinking ourselves and instead, institutions should spend more time fostering culturally inclusive work environments. I say bring your “loudness” to the Ivy League, bring your snapping fingers to Student Affairs, and bring your big hair along with your even bigger spirit with you to your next interview. It is crucial that we continue to infiltrate professional spaces as our authentic selves, bringing with us all of our ghetto, articulation, grace, and glory so that we can, once and for all, debunk the sentiment that ghetto and professionalism cannot share the same space.