Updated: Oct 4

*post migrated from medium*

During my college years it was tacitly assumed that we all agreed that class should not be talked about, that there would be no critique of the bourgeois class biases shaping and informing pedagogical process (as well as social etiquette) in the classroom. Although no one ever directly stated the rules that would govern our conduct, it was taught by example and reinforced by a system of rewards. As silence and obedience to authority were most rewarded, students learned that this was the appropriate demeanor in the classroom. Loudness, anger, emotional outbursts, and even something as seemingly innocent as unrestrained laughter were deemed unacceptable, vulgar disruptions of classroom social order. These traits were also associated with being a member of the lower classes. If one was not from a privileged class group, adopting a demeanour similar to that of the group could help one to advance. It is still necessary for students to assimilate bourgeois values in order to be deemed acceptable.

This is one of the passages from Bell Hooks book ‘teaching to transgress’ that I picked up recently after a friend suggested I read it to help me determine what kind of psychology professional I want to show up in the world as. Although auntie Hooks is writing about an academic setting, this could easily apply to many working spaces including psychology spaces. This passage in particular really landed in my heart because it occurred to me that while I had always considered the reality that white middle class people had shaped psychological practise and its application, I had never considered how that class influence has shaped professional culture. I had also never considered that this might form part of the discomfort I’ve felt trying to navigate professional culture since I started trying to climb the psychology career ladder.

I noticed the discomfort first when I switched from working in a healthcare assistant (HCA) role to a psychology assistant in one of my previous jobs. When I worked as HCA I felt I could bring my whole self to work — I felt able to interact with clients as a person by sharing personal stories and sharing myself. Relationships with colleagues and clients were very personal, very palm to palm, but then I got an opportunity to work as a psychology assistant within the service and things shifted.

There were new team dynamics and I felt like the way I had to relate to clients was different. Where I could have been palm to palm with clients before I was now separated by a clipboard. Where I could have been allowed to show care and express myself in full laughter and banter with clients, I felt I had to be restrained, I couldn’t laugh too hard at things because that might seem ‘unprofessional’. The psychology role felt more transactional and it felt like it had to be in order to get the job done, even though that wasn’t necessarily true. Being palm to palm with clients and laughing and dancing with them before didn’t stop me from getting my job done before, it facilitated it. Talking informally did not stop me from getting my job done, but somehow in order to fulfil this new role and climb up the ladder, it felt like I had to leave parts of myself on the rungs on my way up.

There are probably a lot of different factors that fed into that, but the passage quoted from the book made me think about how class factored in. Before reading, I would have probably attributed the shift to purely racial and cultural differences. That cannot be it however as within my HCA team there was plenty of racial ‘diversity’. The team was made up of staff whose backgrounds were black Muslim, black Christian, black Somalian, black Caribbean, Indian, Filipino. Despite those differences, there was a very clear culture of openness. I didn’t feel that in the psychology team.

The psychology team was made up of purely young white women (which is interesting because none of the other team’s had such a make-up) each of whom seemed to have very similar expressions and sentiments and ways of interacting. Because of that, it felt like there was one way to be in the team and what they modelled was it. I felt like I couldn’t say or present myself with a certain level of honesty and openness because it would seem as if I was being ‘unprofessional’, even though I was working in exactly the same service and the only thing that had changed was the team I worked in. Granted, some of the discomfort might have been that I was trying to adjust to a new team that I was less familiar with, but the culture of that team did not facilitate the kind of openness of expression and honesty that I was used to.

Unfortunately, that culture trickles down into how we perceive and interact with clients too. Clients that are seen as loud or interrupting in the way that Hooks describes are often pictured as rude or difficult in psychology, when really, they simply have a different way of communicating that doesn’t align with what ‘professionals’ (who are usually white and middle class) define as appropriate. It can be more insidious in healthcare spaces because this can lead to having your valid feelings pathologized or not having access to appropriate care blocked. As a ‘professional’ you might sometimes feel that you’re not allowed to point this out because it would be seen as ‘unprofessional, as a client, if you’re naturally expressive you might feel that you have to present as stoic to be seen as mentally well. I know that I have definitely done that.

Thinking about all this I wondered, what is left if we divest professionalism of classism? In most cases, actually nothing because classism runs straight through the concept of professionalism by determining what jobs are seen as ‘professional’. Professional jobs are usually those that have required some form of vocational study — which in itself is a harmless and respectable thing — you of course want to feel that the person you are working with has expertise that justifies you trading your resource for it, however the cultural lie that accompanies vocations that they somehow make you a person worthy of more respect than others.

In attempt to redeem the concept I googled what being a ‘professional’ means generally and a lot of websites talked about the values that underline the concept and the common of these were:

  • Competency and specialised knowledge

  • Reliability and accountability

  • Honesty and integrity

  • Self-control

  • Respect

  • Professional image

The first highlights what I previously mentioned about professionals being people with specialist knowledge and expertise in a particular field — a psychology professional is simply someone with specialist knowledge and skills in the field of psychology. Bar the last trait on the list, these are perfectly great traits, however, they aren’t traits that come with a job — they are life practises. Thinking about this revealed my other discomfort with general professional culture which is that we tout these values but instead of practising these things, we perform them in order to put across an idea of a ‘professional image’ (which again is often defined by classist standards).

We pretend as if people step into work spaces as empty vessels and they don’t. We act as if people get up in the morning and empty themselves out in order to fulfil some role and we act as if we have to. We’re seeing somewhat of a small breakdown of this with the transition to online working where the lines between the personal and professional are blurring, but it’s still as if institutions haven’t caught up to this. The personal always shapes the professional but we spend our professional lives pretending that it doesn’t and we spend our time at work talking about professional values but not caring about the personal values that people are cultivating.

People are not empty as soon as they step through the door, they bring themselves with them, and they should. It is our individuality that makes our contribution unique in our working teams. People shouldn’t be expected to leave parts of themselves at home. The only reason we expect them to do that is because oftentimes we don’t trust the character of who they are at home — which is really quite something. I feel this is how we end up in the cultural landscape that we are in where brands and business that claim to be about one thing but in reality, their personal practise is so far from that. I also wonder whether this is what contributes to people building an identity out of a career and then waking up one day to realise that they don’t actually know who they are. Outside of the job what do they value? What do they actually enjoy? They never bothered to find out because we have a culture that disregards our personal lives in favour of our working ones.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the kind of professional I want to be and the kind of culture I want to work in, and it is one where I can be honest about how the personal shapes who I am in my role, and where I can be honest about how the personal is shaping me in my role at a particular time.

In a conversation recently, I was saying that sometimes if I’m nervous before giving a talk, I will tell the room that I am nervous. It was commented on that doing so was somewhat unprofessional and would diminish listeners trust and respect for me. I had a similar experience once when preparing to lead a workshop, I explained to the host organisations that I was tired, and I remember watching the eyes of the commissioning staff go up — but in all honesty I was just naming what was in the room. I’m nervous. I’m tired. This is the reality of me at the moment — it doesn’t define me, but it’s here. I’m a bit slower than usual because of it, but I’m here and I’m present and we’re still going to have a good session. It felt unprofessional but it wasn’t at all. It was honest and integral. I have to ask myself where this notion of professionalism came from that somehow stops me from being in a body that has biological processes that result in nervousness or fatigue. We’re not machines as much as we might think we can work ourselves into becoming them and we don’t have to pretend to be. I hear it often said that we need to humanise our leaders and not expect perfection from them, but we actually don’t often expect humanity from the people that lead us. We often expect them to be superhuman in order to supplement our belief in our own ability to perform beyond our humanity, but really all our leaders and our professionals are at any given time are people that are working amongst a backdrop of biological, psychological, social and spiritual influences.

The vision of professionalism that I see for myself in psychology is one where I am allowed to name that within my team. It is one where I am developing in knowledge, skill and competency but in a way that encourages my actual personal values. It is one that doesn’t root itself in classist ideas of presentability and communication but is rooted in respect for others. One that doesn’t deny me having a personality or having a body or doesn’t make me tighten my smile when it wants to spread across my face. It is one that allows me to be a whole being — not without self-regulation and boundaries, but with personhood at the forefront. One that doesn’t make me choose between being a person and being a professional. Thinking about the spaces that I will have to navigate as I pursue this career that are the antithesis of that is discouraging, but I’m thankful to my friend who suggested I read this book because now I have auntie Hooks as a voice in the world that encourages me to transgress.

It takes courage to embrace a vision of wholeness of being that does not reinforce the capitalist version that suggests that one must always give something up to gain another. I encourage students to reject the notion that they must choose between experiences. They must believe they can inhabit comfortably two different worlds, but they must make each space one of comfort. They must creatively invent ways to cross borders. They must believe in their capacity to alter the bourgeois settings they enter.