Crafting Your Professional Identity When You Are "The Other"Written by Faiza Hassan
Faiza Hassan, a trainee lawyer in Ottawa, reflects on the importance of professionalism for young professionals from Black and Muslim backgrounds navigating workspaces where there are still not many people who look like them. This article is based on a speech delivered by Faiza Hassan at the Awakening the Spirit of Somali Youth Conference in January 2015
So, why is professionalism important and what value does professionalism add to your life?
Alhamdulillah (Thank God), I am so indebted to my parents because they truly used every tool in their arsenal to provide my siblings and me with the very best shot at better futures. My parents, like most Somali parents, stressed the value of ‘education’ at a very early age: go to school, get good grades, and get a good paying job. The quintessential immigrant dream: a seemingly straight forward formula to success.
However, while we have been taught that getting a strong educational foundation is an important cornerstone for success, education without professionalism is an empty ambition.
While your credentials may get you through the door, it is your professionalism that will, 9 times out of 10, determine whether you get the job, and even after you do, how long you stay in your position, whether you are promoted and so on. In other words, even though your formal education ends when you walk across the stage, professionalism carries into all aspects of your life, for the rest of your life.
Professionalism provides you with many privileges. It will attract you to opportunities, personal growth, development, community and legacy. In fact, the state of your reputation will be determined by your professional, or lack thereof.
I remember on my very first day of law school, our Dean told my peers and I that, as soon to be professionals, we should remember that our reputations would always precede us and for that reason, we would do best to be conscious of the images we put forth of ourselves.
This advice proved to hold true because today, while we are no longer law students, my peers and I have developed salient reputations that are very much based on our experiences together in our early days of law school. So the disrespectful and corner-cutting student from our school days is now the person least likely to receive a referral. So professionalism can have some very real and tangible impacts on your life.
Admittedly, this undertaking of cultivating a professional identity can be daunting and time consuming, so why spend so much time on it when you can simply opt out?
Well, unfortunately, a lack of professionalism does not mean neutrality; it is STILL, inherently, an expression of who you are, an expression that you are projecting to the world. So while it is important to remember that there are many motivating factors for being professional and maintaining a professional attitude at all times, you must also be alive to the fact that actively disregarding professionalism all together communicates that you are: not to be trusted, not worthy of consideration, and not competent. And like my Dean once said, whatever first impression you project of yourself earliest will, without a doubt be the lasting impression people have of you, so it is in your best interest to project the very best version, that is, the most professional version, of yourself you can.
So, now that you are all hopefully convinced of why cultivating a professional identity is important, what does a professional look like?
So this is perhaps the most important question and also the most contentious.
When I started working on this section of my talk, I really struggled. I thought you know what; they are young and idealistic (and I use the word idealism intentionally), why burden them the ugliness that is reality so early in their careers? Write something flowery, write something light. But after further thought I decided against it and I’ll tell you why.
Because you are unquestionably bright, critical, and resilient young people and you deserve, and can handle, the truth because sooner or later, if you haven’t already, you will find that the world is just what it is. And for that reason, honesty is the greatest service I can give you now.
So with that being said, the truth of the matter is, as things stand right now, professionalism does not look like you or me for that matter. And what I mean by that is, professionalism is not young (relatively speaking), it is not black, it is not Muslim, it is not female, it does not come from humble beginnings, and it is certainly not an aggregation of those markers. And because of this, you need to be mentally prepared for the experience of being alone amongst a sea of faces that do not look like and do not share similar experiences to you.
By way of example, my ‘otherness’ was really confirmed in my first semester of law school.
There is a mandatory course on legal ethics in first year of law school. One day we had a guest speaker come in and teach us about legal ethics through a series of scenarios and discussion questions. One of the examples she presented was about an Aboriginal student who overheard one of her white peers comment to his friend that, “All of these Aboriginals got in easier than the rest of us”. The guest speaker’s discussion points were along the lines of, if we heard this, how would we reply? Or what did we think?
To me this was a very simple example with an obvious response; clearly, the speaker in the scenario was ignorant and misinformed, clearly.
So you can imagine my surprise, perhaps due to my own naivety, when one of my peers, who was white and male, who I had actually worked with in a group in that same class, and who I thought at the time to be level-headed and informed, put his hand up and ever so nonchalantly said, “Wait am I missing something, what is wrong with what he said? Minorities and Aboriginals do get in a lot easier than the rest of us.”
I remember thinking to myself, “He can’t possibly be serious??”
A discussion on the purpose and value of affirmative action policies aside, it deeply disturbed me that this man was sincerely under the impression that every single person of colour and Aboriginal student in our class had only been admitted into law school because of some quota system and not on their own merits. How could someone who was so evidently “educated”, “informed”, and capable of critical thought be so ignorant? Sadly, he was not an outlier and a few of my peers shared his sentiments.
That experience will always stick with me because it was the first time my feelings of ‘being other’ in that setting were confirmed.
Let me say that, while in my humble opinion, my alma matter does a great job and is in fact a leader amongst its peers in institutionally promoting diversity, it would be a disservice to not recognize that many of these “professional” spheres are spaces of privilege. For decades they were intentionally designed to proactively discriminate against, and prevent the entry of, people who looked like you and me. And unfortunately, that sense of exclusivity continues to exist amongst some people to this day.
So why do I share this anecdote?
Well for one, I want to validate any feelings you may have of being “othered”, as you enter into your respective professions. Often we undermine our own visceral reactions and experiences because we have been conditioned to believe that our experiences do not matter. I want you to be assured that your gut feelings are valid and that they are real.
And secondly, I want you to remember that even when people have you thinking that you are less than or not worthy of certain things because of your identity, you should know that it has nothing to do with you as an individual and everything to their skewed perception of reality. You are not less than. You are equal, you are bright, and you are worthy of any gift or blessing that you have been bestowed with.
Remember that while the situation is not idealistic, there is still room for optimism. Because you’re different, in many ways you are a novelty and people will be more curious to hear your story and see what you have to offer. So you can capitalize on the unique position you are in and place yourself for success Insh’Allah (God willing)?
Ok so now finally, the question of the hour - how can you as a young, Somali, Muslim, male or female, manage yourself in this environment? How exactly do you cultivate a professional identity?
So first off, take whatever I say with the caveat that your experience will differ based on context, whether you are a guy or girl, or whether you are identifiably Muslim or not. But there are, in my opinion, some universal things you can keep in mind:
First and foremost – know that perception is everything!
There is so much that goes into perception, and yes I’ll be real, a lot of it is finicky and subjective, but this is how it is. You need to aware of your context, be aware of how you dress, be aware of how you groom yourself, be aware of how you speak, including the words you use at work as opposed to in a social setting, be aware of your time and how you manage it. These may all be very obvious tips so I will give you an example that will demonstrate how you must be hyper-aware of these basic elements in light of your identity.
A friend of mine once told me how she was given a suggested window of time to start work by her boss on her first day at her job. Let’s say her supervisor told her that she could start at any time between 8:30-10:00AM. So she took what her supervisor said at face-value and decided to start work closer to the later end of that window only to find out at her performance review that people had taken issue with her starting ‘so much later than everyone else’. They had developed a perception of her as being a lazy employee who casually strolled in whenever she wished to. Was this unjust? Absolutely. But her decision to come in later, in addition to the negative stereotypes associated with people from her community, contributed to others perceiving her as being lazy and uninterested in her work. So always be hyperaware of the perception you convey of yourself to your peers and superiors. You do not want something so fickle and unfair to be the reason why your assets are not recognized.
Know Your Cards
Next, know your cards, how you will play them, which cards you are willing to lose in this process and which you want to hold onto. It is easy to lose elements of yourself in the process of cultivating a professional identity. It happens to us all, and that is why it is important to know ahead of time what aspects of yourself you are will to compromise on and change and what values go so deeply to the core of who you are, that even if you were presented with the most attractive opportunity you would walk away from it to preserve them. I hope that makes sense. This is a very personal exercise that requires that you know yourself pretty well. This is something you can begin identifying now. Check your internal compass in various settings or circumstances, are you being true to yourself in your actions and conduct? Are you being authentic? Does that even matter to you?
Always be competent. Be detail-oriented, ask questions early, hone your craft. Put your very best effort into EVERYTHING you do. This means completing the smallest requests with the same care and effort as you would the biggest projects.
Work hard yes, BUT also work smart, be confident, and defeat your self-doubt. Sadly, hard work alone will not necessarily be enough. It is important to showcase the work you do in an appropriate manner. Rarely is the person who is consistently working hard but cooped up in his or her office recognized. If you’re naturally introverted like me, you need to make a greater effort to communicate with others. I still struggle with judging myself for being ‘fake’ or ‘cheesy’, but I think that it is important to realize that the most effective forms of communication are based on a sincere interest in someone and their work and are reciprocal.
Be courteous. Be courteous to EVERYONE you meet and remember no matter how ‘high up’ you get in a “dunya (worldly) sense”, you’re nothing more than the earth you walk on, so humble yourself.
I have seen plenty of people with over-inflated egos who will be so ‘kind’ and respectful to ‘upper ups’ or even their peers, but who will be so vile and rude to those who have less prestigious positions. It is hard to respect these types of people because they lack basic integrity and character. Character is in how you treat those who can do nothing to benefit you, so be of good character and treat others well.
Be set boundaries because sometimes people will try you. Being courteous doesn’t mean letting people get away with mean-spirited, ignorant comments. You avoid this by remaining formal, perhaps even overly formal. Know that information spreads quickly whether it is in your workplace or even in our Somali community. Be cautious of what you share with others, be aware of who you trust. Be assertive and advocate for yourself if you feel you are being unfairly treated.
Perhaps the most important tip – be ignorant…but in a good way. Yes, you will undoubtedly accomplish many things, win great acclaims, do important work and great scholarship on your road to professionalism but the greatest trait you will ever possess as a professional is to be cognizant of, and humbled, by your own limitations. Remember that you will never know everything or predict all outcomes. So accept a posture of humility and allow it to compel you to keep learning. Never, ever, become self-satisfied in what you know. Never become so enamored by your own intelligence that you never sign up for challenges because failure is not always incompatible with excellence.
And finally, feel free to disregard everything I have just said … because the truth is that, no matter how many degrees you accumulate, no matter how early you show up to work, or how hard you work, or respectable you become, sometimes you still won’t escape discrimination and judgment. And just like that episode of Fresh Prince, where the police officer pulled Carlton over while he was driving a fancy car, despite his ‘proper English’, fancy prep school education and nice clothing, he learned that despite his “respectability”, he could not escape racism. You won’t be able to insulate yourself from racism either.
So don’t do it for that reason, do it for yourself and don’t get disheartened and give up after you do everything the ‘right’ way and still face obstacles. Persevere instead.
So, to close off I wanted to briefly touch on the importance of reaching back and mentorship. I have the great privilege of having met some AMAZING mentors in the process of negotiating my professional identity. My mentors are who I lean on when I feel like the obstacles before me are too challenging, who I consult on strategy, and with whom I share my achievements.
Having mentors will make this process less painful because knowing that there are individuals who have faced these same issues and triumphed is reassuring.
I always say this, but I can’t reiterate enough that you should not have any preconceived notions of who your mentors or allies will be. Some of my greatest allies share completely dissimilar lived experiences from me, so look for empathy and be empathetic to those who are most different from you.
The theme of this conference is the “Examining the Gaps in the Education System for Somali-Canadian youth in Ottawa”. So it seems fitting to reference Dr. Carter G. Woodson, a prominent African American history scholar, who wrote extensively on the impacts of mainstream education on the psyches of African American students.
If you can control a man's thinking you do not have to worry about his action. When you determine what a man shall think you do not have to concern yourself about what he will do. If you make a man feel that he is inferior, you do not have to compel him to accept an inferior status, for he will seek it himself. If you make a man think that he is justly an outcast, you do not have to order him to the back door. He will go without being told; and if there is no back door, he will build one; his very education will demand one.
Dr. Woodson’s words, while written in the context of 1930s, are still relevant today. Sometimes, the process of professionalism and education will teach you that people from your culture or who share your background, have not made any valuable contributions to history and are incapable of making any valid contributions. Or if they have made contributions, these contributions begin and end with let’s say slavery, or the civil war, or tribal conflict or even rachet tv. Over time you may begin to internalize these messages and your psyche can be altered in a manner that leads you to recreate systems of oppression in your own community.
For example, how many times have we prepared to attend an event organized by a minority group and thought, “Oh I will show up a little late because they will be running on “immigrant standard time,” as if there is something intrinsically tied to their DNA that makes them incapable of starting on time and therefore permits us to disrespect the event by showing up late. Reject these false depictions. Please do not create a back door for yourself or oppress others by sending them to it.
Also, recognize that as someone with even the opportunity to engage in the process of developing a professional identity you are privileged, and with that there is the burden of responsibility. This means that yes, you must speak up and use your privilege to facilitate change and undermine oppression, but it also means you must remain silent. When you remain silent in the presence of those who have less privilege, you undermine the idea that only those with certain degrees and certifications have a right to speak. So remain silent when it is appropriate and listen.
I will end with this: You will all one day soon be young professionals in your respective fields, Insh’Allah (Hopefully), so I hope that as you move forward and do great things, a smidgen of what I have shared will percolate in your mind and serve to be of some benefit to you. I’m confident that you will all achieve great things and be great professionals.