Intercultural Life at Lake Forest College
Breaking the Mold
By Colin MacFarlane, Residence Life Coordinator
We are definitely in the throes of March Madness. While the basketball tournament has been an exciting one with many close finishes and a few upsets sprinkled throughout to keep things interesting, I am thinking about a different kind of controlled chaos: hiring season. Student affairs professionals across the country are trying to decide what school fits best for them and how they can make themselves attractive to potential employers. Graduating seniors are doing the same as they look to differentiate themselves from their peers as the job market prepares for thousands upon thousands of eager new professionals. Inevitably during this time of year I will find myself talking with someone about professionalism and particularly professional dress and appearance. I think people often want to discuss this topic with me because I don’t necessarily fit the typical mold in this regard.
I believe it is fair to say that when most people imagine a professional in their minds they see a business suit, slacks, dress shoes, button-down collared shirt, tie, clean shaven face and a short, tight haircut. I can’t think of a day when that would accurately describe me. For starters, I have a beard, which while it has been cut back by an inch or two in recent years, would not look out of place at a motorcycle rally. Continuing on with the biker theme, my head is shaved, ears are pierced multiple times and I have visible tattoos down my arms and on my hands and fingers. This is about where the tough guy look stops though, as my clothing choice touches on what most would consider the opposite extreme, particularly because the tops come from the women’s section. I find the colors, cuts, and patterns of women’s clothing to be much more interesting and fun than those found in the men’s section.
As you might imagine, these choices have led to quite a few conversations about my experiences in general and particularly in the workplace. Most people want to know why I present myself the way I do. This is really pretty straight forward on the surface – I like the look. I wouldn’t be wearing the clothes that I wear or have the tattoos that I have if I didn’t like them, but there is another layer. I firmly believe that we all benefit when the people in our communities are permitted to be their true selves and express themselves in authentic and self-affirming ways. People bring much more to the table when they are able to come as who they are instead of taking energy to fit an unnatural mold. In choosing to express a self that is outside of the norm, I hope I can serve as an example for others whose authentic selves may not totally fit inside the boxes society has created.
In addition to wondering why, people are also often curious about how people have reacted to and treated me. For the most part people have either nothing to say or just simple and good-hearted, if not always tactful, curiosity. Overall, I have found people to be generally accepting of who I am and how I present myself. I believe part of this is can be attributed to the field I work in and the climate here at the College, but I can’t help but believe other aspects of who I am, specifically as a white man, allow me to transgress some of the societal and professional norms around dress and appearance without significant consequences.
I have to wonder if I would be given the same acceptance if I were a person of color or a woman. As a white man I am given the benefit of the doubt by people, not because they intentionally do it but because our society is trained to accept white men as competent and capable. A person of color or a woman is likely not going to get that automatic credibility bump, which means additional questions of her or his abilities may set her or him back considerably. Given that I have the privilege to “get away with” pushing on the edges of the box of acceptability what, if any, responsibility does that leave me with?
Seeing as though I can’t simply walk away from this unearned privilege and pretend that if I don’t actively use it I don’t have, I feel I owe it to myself and to others to make sure I am extending that credibility to others, challenging those assumptions when they arise, and engaging in dialogue with people about these issues even when they don’t just happen to come up. I can’t simply take advantage of the fact that I seem to be able to be myself and express myself as I prefer, particularly if I am going to encourage others to be their true selves as well.
Ultimately, I believe professionalism should be more about how you do your job than about what you look like while doing it. That being said, however, our appearance, our hair, skin, size, dress, and much more do play a role in whether others will take us seriously in our work. So until the time comes where some of these more arbitrary “rules” are gone, each person has to make choices about where she or he will fall in step and where she or he will march to a different beat. As someone who has several of these factors in my favor, I feel I have the opportunity to push on some of the other areas in the hopes of expanding the definition of what is acceptable for everyone.