White “Professionalism” Limits Diverse Employees’ Belonging

Nadia Hernandez

This is the third piece in a four-part series exploring how race and identity affect feelings of belonging at work, and how employers can respond and support their diverse workforce. This series is based on qualitative research from The America’s Promise Alliance YES Project which demonstrates that young employees feel that their identities play an important role in how they enter into, navigate, and advance within the world of work. Below, nonprofit professional Nadia Hernandez shares about her experiences navigating white-dominant workplace norms as a Mexican-American immigrant. Check out part one and part two of the Race, Identity, and Belonging series.

An inclusive workplace is one where you can communicate and collaborate with colleagues without fear, feel safe to voice your opinion, and show up as your full self. My personal and professional experiences have taught me that this simple idea is essential to creating a real sense of workplace belonging, a culture of innovation, and a sustainable future for employees and employers alike. However, a lack of cultural openness, adherence to white-dominant norms, and Americanized definitions of “professionalism” prevent many of us from showing up authentically. I am often not seen through a lens of the assets I bring, but through the lens of a predestined narrative.

I grew up in the northern state of Mexico called Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, known for its beautiful attractions, modern structures, and industrial economy. My culture values family, storytelling, and community; it is a culture with lively people, colorful homes, and a language that expresses deep emotions. My Mexican heritage and Catholic faith have shaped my identity and guide me as I navigate my personal and professional journey in America.

I share this because I, like many Americans, am an immigrant, and my story is not a frivolous detail, but an integral part of what makes me a professional asset. And the more I connect with colleagues of color about their experiences, the more I am encouraged to reject the white ideal of “professionalism.”

For example, I previously worked for an American institution in Morocco, and during my tenure I felt more accepted by Moroccans than my white colleagues. When I introduced myself, a young woman with brown skin, as Mexican-American, many Moroccans seemed puzzled—yet they embraced me, asked questions, and listened to my story. I don’t often find this same sense of curiosity in white-dominant work environments. That norm leads to many U.S. employers missing an opportunity to cultivate a sense of belonging and inclusion, particularly for employees of color. 

In addition to a lack of curiosity, I’ve also observed a sense of authority among many white colleagues, or an assumption that there is only one way to be “correct.” For instance, people with academic degrees and credentials are generally valued more than people with personal experiences with a given issue. There is also an expectation of a very formal way of speaking and interacting. My native language expresses a lot of emotions, and I am often perceived as loud, which doesn’t fit into the white idea of “professionalism.”

I’ve slowly begun to see how these well-intentioned assumptions can affect Black and brown employees’ own self-perception, performance, and satisfaction in the workplace. This perpetuation of white-dominant norms makes people who do not fit into that ideal feel small. In previous jobs, I have found myself hiding or shrinking my own talents, which is a missed opportunity for me and my employer to grow. Ultimately, I left those jobs because I knew I was being “othered” and that my value was not appreciated. I work now as a DEI Project Associate, where I have the freedom to express my ideas and feel a sense of belonging within the organization. Though I find meaning in my work, I should not have to work on a DEI team to feel like I can bring my unique perspective.

My experience as a Mexican-American immigrant in the American workplace has taught me that many employers say they want diversity, but they aren’t ready for what actual diversity entails and the commitment it takes. Here are a few actions employers can take to work against these damaging white-dominant norms and create inclusive environments for all employees:

1.    Intentionally and regularly engage in active listening.

Recognizing that some voices have been intentionally oppressed for centuries is the foundation for change, understanding, and belonging. Start identifying how these beliefs and norms have influenced your company or organization, and start acting. Are you creating space to actively listen to diverse employees’ experiences? People can sense when they are being heard, so it’s important to intentionally create an environment in which employees feel comfortable speaking their truth. Your work will be better for it.

2.    Examine and reimagine your definition of “professionalism.”

Some employees, particularly those from backgrounds that do not align with the “white norm,” may be insecure about the way things work in your workplace. Be curious and explore how these unconscious norms might hinder employees’ sense of belonging. Is your sense of urgency limiting creativity? Is your desire for perfection preventing some employees from taking risks? Are you making assumptions about people’s abilities based on the way they speak or write? Engaging with these difficult questions can help your company deconstruct white norms and gain perspective about employees’ satisfaction, lead to change management, and encourage retention.  

3.    Make space for cultural sharing and storytelling.

Having a “diverse” workplace without recognizing the diversity of perspectives your employees bring to the table can encourage a culture of confusion and distrust. Culture-sharing is a way to build meaningful connections and understand the perspectives each person brings to the table. Authentic conversations help us understand each other—belonging cannot happen without that understanding. A culturally aware company will lead to a more rewarding, productive workplace where we can embrace one another’s differences and work together toward common goals.

Belonging and identity are inextricably linked, and are crucial components of employee satisfaction. It is sometimes uncomfortable to talk about how dominant cultural identities shape our norms, but it is essential, and is part of a larger journey to embrace the diversity of all Americans.

This series was generously supported through a grant from State Farm.