How Morehouse College is redefining professionalism

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Douglas Cooper, who is black, began his career at IBM in 1987.

One day, while having lunch with a mentor, he noticed that the cafeteria was serving fried chicken, collard greens, and slices of watermelon. He remembers being very aware of his darkness in what was a very white environment. Cooper wondered if eating lunch would perpetuate black stereotypes. He asked his mentor if he felt the same way. His mentor turned to him and said, “Doug, you think they don’t know you’re black,” he recalled with a laugh.

“It was the simplest explanation for being as good as you can be and what you do and not letting other people’s perception of you dictate how you behave,” Cooper said.

Today, Cooper is the executive director of career services at Morehouse College, Atlanta’s historically black men’s college, whose alumni include Martin Luther King Jr. and Spike Lee. In Kamala Harris, who attended Howard University in Washington, DC, there is a historically black college graduate who serves as vice president.

In his advice to students, Cooper said that although he struggled with it, he encouraged students who wore dreadlocks to cut them off when moving on to interview processes and networks in industries. more conservative like financial services.

“It is unfortunate that this is one of many accommodations that we as black Americans have had to make to reduce the potential for racial discrimination in the workplace,” he added. This was especially true a decade ago, but he said he’s seen a shift towards more acceptance of natural hair since then.

Another HBCU, Hampton University, attracted a lot of attention for banning dreadlocks and cornrows for some business students in 2001. Researchers in the field of diversity, equity and inclusion who Insider spoke to had mixed opinions: there is a potential cost to keeping dreads, in terms of facing bias, but also a potential cost to losing them, in light of possible loss of personal authenticity. . Such are the still complicated dynamics of professionalism in America.

The HBCU experience is kind of an “artificial” environment, Cooper pointed out. “You’re surrounded by all these really driven, smart, ambitious young black men. You’re one of hundreds, thousands,” he said of Morehouse. “But when you leave Morehouse, the world will be very different.”

Cooper said that in the United States, whether they become blacksmiths or lawyers, people of color are questioned about their abilities and professionalism. “The Equalizer continues to work on your craft and be the best in terms of the quality of the work you provide, which will eliminate questions about your professionalism,” he said.

This isn’t exactly backed up by the data: In in-depth interviews with Utah State University sociologist Christy Glass, black leaders said they were under more pressure as they advanced in their career. “As the stage gets bigger, the spotlight gets bigger, and as you go up, you become even more exceptional for your difference,” said Glass, who is white.

If being perceived as professional is really about navigating workplace culture, Cooper said, then another key is networking. A mentor can help you understand the hierarchy of the office or the preferences of particular personalities. And high-achieving alumni show what is possible.

“Overall, it’s true that professionalism has historically been associated with white masculinity, but there are plenty of Morehouse graduates in positions of influence,” Cooper said, and access to them helps students. “As young black professionals, their perception of professionalism is not defined by white masculinity, but by those in positions of influence who are successful and on whom they seek to model their careers.”

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