For many BIPOC code-switching is second nature to us. We are so accustomed to doing it, we sometimes don’t even recognize when we make “the switch”. Our lessons in code-switching begin early in childhood—from choosing to use our native languages or ethnic vernacular at home vs. formal English at school to getting the “talk” from parents as teens to handle (and survive) encounters with law enforcement. In essence, we become cultural chameleons subtly shifting our body movements, our language, and our very nature in order to avert any potential threats to ourselves which will allow us the ability to move through monolithic spaces to just LIVE our daily lives; and from a professional standpoint advance in our careers.
While the term code-switching was coined in the early 1950’s by sociolinguist Einar Haugento to describe alternating between languages and mixing dialects, it has more recently been also been used to define the actions of marginalized people of color when they linguistically, behaviorally and/or culturally express themselves differently to navigate mainstream intercultural spaces. Often times code-switching is performed when BIPOC find themselves the only person of color in the room and utilized to signal that they too belong, have credibility to be in the space and essentially, to make others in the room feel more comfortable with their presence. We avoid being seen as too loud, too angry, too Black, Brown, Asian, etc., or basically too anything that would be deemed “inappropriate” or not the norm for certain monocultural environments.
In professional spaces, code-switching is often considered a necessary tool in order to navigate predominately white spaces to achieve career success and build professional relationships with peers and senior leadership. During an interview with James Lipton on Inside the Actor’s Studio, comedian Dave Chappell remarked: “Every black American is bilingual. We speak street vernacular and we speak job interview. There’s a certain way I gotta speak to have access…” While code-switching can be strategically beneficial, it is important to note that it can also be extremely exhausting. The nuanced dance of trying to navigate predominately white spaces—which either are not inclusive or painfully try to be—places BIPOC in a constant state of hypervigilance. This requires an unquantifiable amount of performative energy on the part of BIPOC.
In The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B DuBois discusses the duality of Black identity which essentially embodies the very essence of code switching:
It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
He also acknowledges that maintaining a dual identity is a struggle and that, those who code-switch are in a constant state of working to keeping themselves together to deal with the stress and ramifications which code-switching brings about, whether consciously or unconsciously.
Research has shown that individuals who code-switch can find that they experience any of the following as a result (McCluney et al. 2019):
- Being accused of “acting white” or “selling out” from other in-group members when they try to downplay being part of a racial group.
- Find that they are actually underperforming and feeling demoralized from efforts to avoid being stereotyped in the workplace. This experience is known as Stereotype Threat.
- Feeling burnt out and not being true to oneself from constantly trying to find commonality with co-workers.
If codeswitching is both strategically beneficial and can be harmful what does this ultimately mean for those of us who do it? First, we need to recognize that we are doing it and know that it is a strategy and tool for survival.
Code-switching also doesn’t necessarily mean that we are being inauthentic when it is by its nature authentically part of our experience. However, once we are cognizant of what we are doing we can make informed and intentional decisions about when to code-switch and also recognize when it no longer feels like it is working to our benefit on a professional or psychological level. We can then ask ourselves what do we need to do to have or create a healthier and more beneficial environment for ourselves and what will it take to achieve it?
In any situation where were are dealing with structural inequities, we have the choice and power to choose how we want to engage and navigate that landscape. Code-switching is a means by which we can operate to survive—as we have been for centuries, but we also must remember to be vigilant and remain aware of the potential cost to ourselves when we do it.