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Make the Switch

Black people! Why do we make the switch? Why do we feel like we can’t be our authentic selves in the workplace? I code-switch and don’t even realize I do it sometimes. The first time I realized I was code-switching was early in my career. I had just graduated from undergrad and landed my first corporate job. My brother called me at work, I answered the phone and he didn’t even realize it was me. He said I sounded “different”. This is just what we do as people of color.

Do you remember when our former president turned on the switch? He greeted a white coach with a hand-shake and then and greeted the Black professional basketball player with a dap. That’s code-switching at its finest, even at the highest level of our country.

There is no simple definition or answer on what it means to code-switch. According to Harvard Business Review, “Broadly, code-switching involves adjusting one’s style of speech, appearance, behavior, and expression in ways that will optimize the comfort of others in exchange for fair treatment, quality service, and employment opportunities”. Essentially, you are changing how you speak and act to make others feel comfortable. For Black people and people of color, code-switching is seen as a necessary practice for advancing professionally and being considered as valuable at work. Even when you work for a company that fosters a culture of authenticity and belonging, we still tend to code-switch.

Code-switching in the workplace is complex. Some disadvantages of code-switching could be:

  • The energy that you use to code-switch is exhausting and can take an emotional toll on you.

  • It’s just another way to communicate to minorities that we aren’t good enough as we are, and that the normally acceptable standard when it comes to speech directly correlates to how white people communicate.

  • We feel like an imposter and can’t be our true selves. We have to hide our personalities, culture, and upbringing because people might associate us with being ghetto or uneducated.

On the contrary, there could be a few advantages:

  • We can transform ourselves and know how to manage and navigate in many different groups and settings.

  • To put it simply, we blend in and are taken seriously. Those who don’t know any better may even consider us “articulate.”

Code-switching looks different for everyone. There are many more reasons why people code-switch and countless examples of how we do it. The universal issue is the overall obligation that we feel we have to code-switch to “fit in”. It’s sad that we live in a society that judges us for who we are, instead of embracing our differences. Let’s work together rigorously to ensure that we bring change to workplaces and allow the acceptance of individualism. We need to work together to turn the switch off or at least dim the light.

My original article was published in Black in HR magazine, Fall 2021.

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