Work and the Case of Professionalized Respectability Politics

Being a Professional means being able to adapt, right?

I’d consider myself relatively lucky as far as my current job and dress codes go.

So long as I wear a pair of slacks (ink stains or broken buttons seem to go unnoticed or I manage to find half–decent ones), a casual dress shirt and look somewhat manageable I’m fine. Even my somewhat grubby sneakers are okay to wear, even though I know some places would (and have) force me to wear my grubby dress shoes instead. Which, if anyone looked closely enough would notice has quite a few holes in them.

But no one really looks that close and that’s the whole point.

The problem with being a “professional” at work is that you’re often trying to live up to the standards of others. You’re not out there to impress yourself or try to fit your own identity as best as you can. Instead, much like in school, there’s a “dress code” for you to follow which dictates how you much dress yourself and why. You can’t look too “casual” because you might scare the customers away. You don’t want to come in smelling bad, looking like you just got out of bed or otherwise unpleasant because the store might lose some business.

All of this is fairly obvious and logical and I’m not actually saying anything different. But it constrains our individual choices, identities and the way we express ourselves in many similarly obvious ways. It certainly makes sense in our current culture since so many people seem to give a lot of weight to people’s looks, smells and attire. But this never says anything about the culture itself. Instead it’s always on the business’s employees to be shaped by culture and not to shape it themselves.

There’s some exceptions of course. There are the sterotypical “casual Friday” where your boss gives you the key to your own self-expression for a total of 8 hours out of your 40 hour work week. And that’s real nice and all but by Friday you might just be a bit too tired to give a shit whether you can dress like “yourself” or not. Maybe you’ve dealt with rude customers, angry bosses and annoying co-workers all week. Or even just most of the week. By the end of it, who really cares if they can wear their favorite Batman shirt or not?

Sure, it’s some sort of reclamation of your personal identity but at that point doesn’t it just feel like a drop in the bucket compared to what you’ve gone through to get there?

Professionalism and respectability politics are both relevant concepts discussed by the site Everyday Feminism, let’s get our definitions clear before moving forward:

Professionalism: “…appear, as much as possible, as if you’re something you’re not and never want to or could be.”

Respectability politics: “…the notion that public blackness must be seen as non-threatening and commendable to outsiders”

These are both pretty loaded definitions (and the writer in the latter article is particularly talking about RP within the context of race as you might be able to tell) but I’d at least sympathize with it.

For example, I’ve certainly never felt completely comfortable in even casual dress attire. It’s just not who I am. I like to wear cargo pants, sure. But not because they’re showy or dressy but because they’re useful! They’ve got so many pockets (and good ones too!) and they’re perfect for when I’m on the go and…okay, gonna stop making this a cargo pants commercial now.

When I’m at home I’ll wear jeans, sometimes cargo pants, hell, sometimes I’ll wear pajamas if I’m just not planning on going out at all. Most of my shirts are smarmy sayings, band shirts, casual dress shirts (I only genuinely enjoy a few of my polo t-shirts) and plain work-shirts (like if I’m painting or doing something messy and I need a t-shirt I can get dirty).

But when I’m at work I have just about none of these luxuries.

Again, I’ll say that in comparison to other workplaces I’m probably pretty lucky. I didn’t need to buy any new clothes to fit the dress code requirements and I happen to have a few nice family members who got me a few pairs of nice looking pants for cheap when I really needed them.

But even still, there’s definitely a sense in which being “professional” is typically going to constrain the budgets of many lower-class workers. Especially those who know very little about how to dress up or where to look to dress up and so on. The voyage itself can become fairly costly at that point and that’s not even including buying the clothes itself.

Of course, many of us have those friends or family members who’ll help us out (as I have the few times I’ve needed it) but for those who don’t or even for those who do it can be a real pain. You’re essentially trying to fit your life around your work and not having it the other way around. The biggest problem with both professionalism and RP is that they both make us shape our lives for the environment we live in and not the other way around. It basically dis-empowers us to strive towards our own self-expression by reminding us that we live around people who have noxious ideas about who should be respected and why.

For instance, it’s quite common for folks who look clean, dress nicely and act neurotypical to be treated much better (sometimes obviously so) than someone who looks a little ragged, is dressed a bit more casually and might enjoy talking to themselves every now and then (as I do). To me this is a really gross way to measure someone’s ability to be taken seriously or consider their opinions. This is just thinly veiled classism, abelism and often, in practice, ends up reinforcing racist and sexist ideas due to gender and racial disparities in current society. It ends up maligning folks who can’t “keep up” with the better connected, more affluent and so on.

You can always tell who the boss is. They’re the ones with the white dress shirts. They’ve got them all buttoned up and some black slacks. They’ve got the polished black dress shoes with no holes. They’ve got the haircut with too much hair gel. They’ve got the clipboard on hand and at least five different commands to give to you if you give them the chance.

This is a generalization, of course. And it doesn’t even work perfectly well where I work. My immediate manager has been growing a beard for a while, dresses pretty casually and wears sneakers. He’s a laid back bibliophile, introvert and misanthrope who doesn’t like being the boss (or even being at retail) and wants to go back to school for paleontology. Suffice it to say, he’ll bring the hammer down but he almost never actually enjoys it or tries to do it when he doesn’t have to.

The district manager, on the other hand, is very much the stereotype I’m talking about.

My manager recently told me a story about the DM:

It was during last Winter and my manager was working there during a blizzard and had done all of the necessary precautions. He had let the plow trucks know they could come in through putting up the appropriate signs. He had put the trash in the back of the store so it wouldn’t blow away. He had let employees know about the upcoming blizzard and he was trying to shovel as often as he could to keep up with the storm.

The DM calls him and asks him if he’s well prepared for the upcoming blizzard and my manager says he is. The DM then tells him to (after my manager just got done explaining what he had done) do those same things he just got done telling the DM he already did.

The DM calls him again a few hours later. Same conversation.

And one more time. Similar conversation.

Finally, after my manager has been there for way longer than he was supposed to be as it was, the DM comes into the store. The DM is on a call and my manager is about to leave and…wait for it…

While the DM is on the phone he shakes my manager’s hands and tells the person on the phone to give him a second because he has an employee who is trying to leave right now.

That’s what you call entitled.

But you’ve gotta bear and grin it, right?

That’s the professional and respectable thing to do, right?

Fuck that.

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