A Framework for Decentering Whiteness in “Professional” Standards

Standards for professionalism in the United States and other Western countries privilege whiteness and stifle inclusion in the workplace.

Reviewed by Tyrone Fleurizard


In the midst of widescale evidence of natural-hair discrimination in the workplace and in schools, some states, in 2019, began to outlaw this form of discrimination. There is the story of the Black student who was told to cut his hair or he would not be allowed to graduate, and another of a Black woman who had her job offer revoked because her hairstyle violated company policy. Informed by white supremacy, policies and professional norms like these cultivate negative workplace environments for historically minoritized groups. How can we begin to think through the subtle and systemic ways that workplace culture prevents Black and brown people from thriving?

Asya Gray provides an overview of how workplace professional standards privilege white, Western, and native English speakers. She cites implicit bias; the proliferation of media images that equate whiteness and leadership; the preferencing of Western or white-sounding names; the myth of “cultural fit” that privileges whiteness; discrimination against non-native English speakers; people who deserve to be promoted but never are; discriminatory hiring metrics such as resumes; discriminatory evaluation processes; and beliefs about timeliness that prioritize productivity over people. The list of these factors is long but in this article, Asya Gray strives to provide a framework for working through them.

Aysa Gray is the Fellowship Director for the Center for Ethnic, Racial and Religious Understanding (CERRU) at Queens College, where she engages college students on how implicit bias impacts their ability to fight for justice and to advocate on behalf of the historically marginalized.

Methods and Findings

According to Gray, the first step in creating an equitable workplace is accepting and appreciating the culture, experiences, and knowledge of your employees. Doing so requires a decentering of whiteness in professionalism standards. Four questions to help think through this include:

  1. What is your personal relationship with “professional” standards in your workplace?
  2. How do these standards unfold in your workplace? How have you contributed?
  3. How have these standards been challenged at the organizational or individual level?
  4. Who can be an ally in changing your workplace culture around professionalism?

Gray has also developed a framework for equitable workplace professionalism standards:

  • Seek out facilitators to lead discussions about implicit bias and white supremacy in professional, managerial, and workplace cultures.
  • One-off trainings or workshops cannot undo years of inequity.
  • Collaborate with consultants who specialize in white supremacy culture to create human resource policies, practices, and procedures that, at the very least: embrace diversity in dress, speech, and work style; re-evaluate the tenets of workplace success including timeliness, scheduling, leadership style, and work style; center historically marginalized voices in assessments; and re-examine hiring, firing, and promotion practices.
  • This work is not cheap nor is it quick.


Gray makes it clear that perceptions of white supremacy should not be limited to the actions of violent white nationalist groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan and the Proud Boys. White supremacy also includes “professional” practices that institutionalize whiteness and Westerness as superior universal standards. Racial equity demands that organizations re-evaluate their understanding of professionalism, and in doing so, work to better understand systemic racism. Gray calls for readers to decenter whiteness in workplace norms and also spotlights organizations including Anti Oppression Resource and Training Alliance (AORTA), Cooperative Food Empowerment Directive (CoFED), Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC), and Mondragon, that are transforming workplaces into more inclusive spaces where Black and brown employees can openly express their humanity.


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