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.