On Professionalism and Respectability

We urgently need a paradigm shift in how professionalism and seriousness are understood, we need a re-humanizing of professionalism.

by Sohra Behmanesh, July 12, 2023
On Professionalism and Respectability

Since our time resources are extremely limited, my husband and I have tried to get help at home from cleaning staff several times. We have looked privately or through specialized platforms that provide cleaners. What all service providers had in common in our experience was that they didn't really know what they were doing. The windows had streaks after one person cleaned them, another person cleaned our cooking utensils with the same gloves she used to clean the toilet minutes before (without washing the gloves first), yet another didn't know a solution for lime stains in the bathroom. And I am convinced that this is because cleaning is so far down in the hierarchy of our idea of profession that the whole society thinks that anyone who just needs a job badly enough "can" do it.

In reality, however, there are very few jobs that you can really do professionally "unskilled". This became clear to me at the latest when I saw a furniture mover skillfully hoisting my washing machine onto his back and carrying it into my apartment all by himself. And so it also happens that a skill such as getting windows relatively effortlessly streak-free is both glorified and devalued as a housewife mystery - as if there were some magic tricks that are unfortunately not accessible to non-housewives. The point of "unskilled work" is not that you don't actually have to have learned anything for it, that one does not have to have acquired any skills - but that it is an argument for devaluing these jobs and paying them as little as possible. It's about exploiting the fact that there are people who really desperately need a job.

And this is as absurd as it is tragic, because what we commonly perceive as professionalism and respectability does not necessarily have anything to do with genuine competence. Because the problem is: What we understand as professionalism and respectability are, in reality, instruments of domination. And the foundations for this are once again classism, patriarchy, racism, Ableism (=discrimination against people on the basis of their disability). And this also has something to do with what I wrote about the other day: that we make the value of wage labor dependent not on its actual importance, but on who does it.

Our education system lays the foundation for this. By definition (!), the functions of schools include not only the imparting of certain knowledge, but also the so-called allocation, i.e. the assignment of people to a social order from top to bottom. And this still wants to be protected. And we do this, for example, by simply grouping together under "educationally distant" people who are primarily "university distant" - and devaluing them for this. This also requires that we recognize certain knowledge as education and that we deny the educational character of certain knowledge. There is a word for this: epistemic violence (epistemic comes from the ancient Greek and means knowledge).

It means that we have to do professionalism primarily with a certain representation of class, with a certain habitus, and bottom line: with performance and sovereignty. And that is in fact often a pretending. And that constructs exclusions on so many levels. Because respectability and sovereignty have so much to do with what we trust and allow ourselves and our counterparts to do - and what we trust and allow ourselves to do has a lot to do with what place we have in the various hierarchies of power and discrimination, and what perspectives result from that.

This can also be broken down to relatively simple characteristics that more or less unconsciously make us appear more professional, more serious, more confident, e.g.: a certain appearance, certain clothing/a certain look, a sonorous voice, the ability to speak without notes, a certain origin, the use of a certain style, a certain understanding of "neutral objectivity" that does without emotionality.

How much damage all this does becomes clear when you look at what our understanding of professionalism, seriousness and expertise actually means. Dress codes on official levels (e.g. political or economic) are calibrated to so-called "western" clothing - even if the representatives come from the Asian or African continent. Fat people are not considered to have leadership qualities. Black people have long pointed to their experience that frizzy curls or hairstyles natural to that hair texture, such as braids or locks, are devalued as explicitly non-serious. Women with children have to pretend they don't have children if they want to be perceived as professional and have a career. Many larger companies prefer to pay the compensatory levy to the Integration Office every month because they don't want to comply with the legal requirement to staff 5% of their workforce with people with disabilities. And studies show that people who speak with an accent are perceived as less competent and credible - which is also a difficult impasse to escape because another study shows that brown and black people who speak German without an accent are often assumed to have an accent that study participants only "hear" when they know the speakers are brown and black people.

These characteristics and our understanding of professionalism also work in reverse: for example, there is still little awareness that the complete lack of knowledge critical of racism, for example, in pedagogical professions simply represents a lack of professionalization - because "the problem", according to the narrative on the tasks and expectations around the topic of migration/integration in educational systems, is not the unpreparedness of the pedagogical system, but "the migrants" (of course, only those from certain countries).

And because professionalism has an absolute character, another tragic characteristic is: the absence of uncertainty and mistakes - with fatal consequences for the whole error culture of a society. It is clear that when errors call into question a professionalism, a competence, a sovereignty, it is natural to deny errors, even to go on the counterattack when errors are pointed out. And our overall societal agreement to allow performed sovereignty to act from above, to intimidate us and determine definitions and narratives, makes us complicit in this system of dominance. Because it is also consensus that sovereignty also includes a form of untouchability, a kind of coolness.

The thing is, those who are not affected by unjust conditions can easily argue from an untouched position, which is often confused with reason and neutrality. Those affected by these unjust conditions do not have this privilege. At the same time, the very fact that they are affected makes them much more likely to be experts on this particular topic than an outsider. But woe betide them if, in a discourse that is supposed to be "objective," they let on that they are emotionally touched. As is well known, emotions are the opposite of reason and neutrality - and in this way, those affected can be stripped of credibility and respectability in a flash! credibility and seriousness.

We urgently need a paradigm shift in how professionalism and seriousness are understood, we need a re-humanizing of professionalism. Because professionalism actually involves admitting and reflecting on errors, and this practice does not call professionalism into question, but rather conditions it. Because feelings and uncertainties are not or do not make us unreasonable, but are part of every single issue on this planet.

We need an understanding of professionalism that has a process, a practice character, that does not claim to be "finished" at a certain point. Because professionalism, competence and expertise exist in all possible forms.

In this column, presented in collaboration with our friends from Wildling Shoes, we want to give more space and visibility to the issues of anti-discrimination, belonging, and intersectionality in the workplace. Through articles, interviews, and diverse perspectives, we aim to both challenge and inspire those working in the impact sector - while encouraging them to create authentically lived workspaces that foster more belonging and less discrimination. By gaining new perspectives and engaging in a shared dialogue, we can take a collective step toward radical systems change in the impact sector - from "power over" and "power for" to "power with." 

Our columnist for 2022 is Sohra Behmanesh. She lives with her family in Berlin, works as a freelance anti-racism trainer, and finds caring and empathy just as superb as intersectionality. 

Find more Belonging articles here: https://www.tbd.community/en/t/to-belonging

Photo: Kris Wolf