Why I Stopped Code-Switching
Accepting the way I look, walk, and talk is the ultimate self-care
Code-switching is designed to help people of color attempt to assimilate in professional spaces, but I have been doing it since preschool. I learned early. Now, as of January 1, 2020, I decided to stop.
Why? I blame the family dog.
When I was five years old, I was one of a few Black girls at my Catholic school. Surrounded by pale skin and long, flowing tresses, my plaited, kinky hair and brown skin stood out. I was constantly reminded that I was the “other.”
These girls and I would often play “house.” They told me that because I looked different and used African American vernacular, I should play the family dog, a role no one wanted. While the White girls sat at a little table with imaginary tea sets and acted out motherly and sisterly roles, my character was sitting on all fours.
Feeling unfulfilled in my role as the family dog, I thought that if I changed my appearance to match my peers, I could at least be upgraded to play a cousin. So, I begged my grandmother to take out my braids and colorful hair bobos and allow me to wear my hair down so I could look more like the girls in my class. On special occasions, Grandma would oblige my request, and I would strut into my classroom and relish in the excitement of my classmates’ reaction to my freshly pressed hair. At recess, I still played the family dog, but due to my classmate’s excitement about my new hairdo, I felt more accepted.
For me, code-switching became more than a linguistics strategy people of color use to assimilate and reach career goals. It was a toxin that was killing my self-esteem and making me question my identity. Decades later I realized those feelings of acceptance I projected onto my White co-workers were all an act.
Per NPR’s Code Switch podcast, code-switching is “the practice of shifting the languages you use or the way you express yourself in your conversations.” But for me, it went beyond language. Starting from pre-K, and going through college and my first job, I altered my image and speech in the presence of White people, thinking it would lead to acceptance and help propel my career.
But it didn’t. Just like that little girl who pretended while sitting on all fours, I was left feeling inauthentic, small, and less than. At my lowest moments, those memories haunt me, but they provide a pertinent lesson for 2020 now that I’ve decided to leave code-switching behind for good.
Code-switching became more than a linguistics strategy… It became a toxin that was killing my self-esteem and making me question my identity.
Gone are the days that I change the way I normally speak and present in the presence of White people to make them feel comfortable enough to accept me into their world. The reason is simple: I’m tired. I’m tired of constantly and enthusiastically saying words like “awesome” or “absolutely” instead of a simple yes. I’m tired of trying to hide my afro by straightening my hair for a job interview. When a birthday card is passed around for the team to sign I’m tired of writing “enjoy your special day” when I really want to say “turn up!” And mostly I’m tired of code-switching for no actual financial, economic, or personal gain. The secret is, code-switching isn’t really effective and it’s fucked up that Black people play into it.
Recently, Harvard Business Review conducted a study on the topic and discovered that when Black people code-switch our “behavior or appearance in the presence of White people at work it can leave us feeling confused about our identity, burned out, and ultimately, hinder our work performance.”
According to the same Harvard Business Review study, published in 2019, shying away from my culture and doing things the “White way” could potentially get me very far. “Expressing shared interests with members of dominant groups promotes similarity with powerful organizational members, which raises the chance of promotions because individuals tend to affiliate with people they perceive as similar,” according to the researchers. Years ago I tried it. I wasn’t ashamed of Blackness, but if straightening my hair and neglecting my native tongue meant career advancement, I was willing to do it.
Fast forward to the last few years. While attending happy hour with my all-White co-workers, I only spoke Standard American English. They would dance and rap along to hip-hop at the bar or club, and at times engage in African American Vernacular with each other, but I would never join in. I routinely sat at the table and allowed myself to watch non-Black people celebrate and enjoy my culture while I sat on the sidelines dancing off-beat and pretending to like beer because I didn’t want to come across as “too Black.” I used my culture as a bargaining chip because I thought my peers would consider me equal.
One day my bubble popped.
At a company event in 2018, I learned that my White peers who had the same job duties as me were earning about $10,000 more, though they had less experience and education. Company quarterly reports proved I consistently outshined my peers. And after I thought about the differences in our treatment, I realized I was never consulted when it came to making decisions for my team. Meanwhile, the Whites were being given manager status for doing the bare minimum, and I was expected to overperform for less pay.
I routinely sat [at company events] pretending to like beer because I didn’t want to come across as “too Black.”
My entire career I did what I thought I was “supposed to.” I got an education, racked up years of experience in my field, worked two times harder, and played the “code-switch game” but it still wasn’t enough for me to earn what the White men next to me were earning. When I realized I was a victim of the wage gap I ran to the bathroom in the middle of the event and cried until my body convulsed. I felt like all my work was in vain, and I was naive for believing that I would ever be considered equal. I immediately thought back to when I was five years old and was forced into playing the family dog. Back then, not even the teacher intervened. More recently, management shrugged when I brought up the pay gap between my peers and myself.
Black women are one of the most educated groups in the country, yet we make only 61 cents to the White man’s dollar. I realized not only was I becoming a shell of myself, but I was also literally being shortchanged and trying to fit in with a group that would never accept me. It didn’t matter how educated I was or if I code-switched. I am a Black woman maneuvering in a country that was not designed for me and minimizing my culture would never change that.
Now I show up and show out. As a working journalist, I am unlearning the behaviors that had me switching my language to begin with. But if I’m honest those first post-code-switching days were a struggle. I’d be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that during that first week I’d nod my head in agreement with people who said that Kim Kardashian made being “thick” a thing just to join them in conversation, when I know daggone well she stole her swag from Black women.
I have the rest of the year to go, and it’s unclear if my co-workers have noticed these changes, but that’s okay because I’m okay with how I authentically present. One day my hair may be in its kinky glory, and another I’ll rock box braids that hit my bottom. Now instead of sitting on the floor I stand up tall if I don’t agree with something or if I feel I’m being slighted. Assimilating is no longer negotiable because being Black is priceless.