What is Code-Switching?

Understanding Code-Switching?

The creation of genuinely accessible and welcoming spaces for diverse groups of people is the best way to reduce the psychological impact of having to self-police and code-switch.

In certain spaces, people from underrepresented groups may feel the need to subtly adjust their behaviour, the way they speak, the clothes they wear, or even their body language. This is known as code-switching which was a term originally created to refer to the way we speak1. Whilst more common amongst ethnic minority people, it can be experienced by all underrepresented groups.

In other words, code-switching is a way of toning down your authentic self and deciding what self to bring to work today because you are aware of being judged. Essentially, you are toning down some of the most obvious elements which associate you with your community so you can fit into your surroundings2.

For example, if you are a black woman working in an office with predominantly white colleagues, you may shift your behaviours to accommodate the norms of white culture values and even change the way you look. The most pertinent example of this is race-based hair discrimination where black women are 1.5 times more likely to be sent home or know a black woman sent home because of her hair in the USA because it doesn’t conform to perceived white beauty standards3.

Also, you may speak to a potential employer differently than a close friend or family member, so you would switch from speaking casually to professionally in certain situations. For many African Americans, they are careful to switch the way they speak to a more academic vocabulary in any interactions with a police officer4.

Code-switching isn’t limited to just people from minority ethnic backgrounds, a great example is provided by Lauren Hough in her TED Talk: “A lesbian walks into a bathroom: a lesson on code switching” where she talks about how she code-switches when she’s in potentially dangerous situations. But most importantly, she raises the point that majority groups seldom code-switch, with a particular emphasis on the fact that straight white men have never felt the need to learn to code-switch because they don’t realise the threat they can present.

When someone doesn’t or can’t code-switch, it can have catastrophic consequences. During the 2013 George Zimmerman trial, Rachel Jeantel was the key witness for the prosecution but as soon as she began her testimony, social media commentary began as well with comments on her intelligence, her weight, and looks because of the way she spoke5. Because Rachel Jeantel wasn’t code-switching, the public weren’t judging the facts of her story, they were judging her language, with Fox News in particular commenting on her credibility6.

George Zimmerman’s defence used the fact Rachel wasn’t code-switching against her as a tactic to make her out to be less intelligent and less credible, and with a predominantly white jury who were likely to have existing racial prejudices, unfortunately led to George Zimmerman being acquitted for the murder of Trayvon Martin7.

Code-switching isn’t limited to cultural differences or dynamics between Black and White people, code-switching can be used amongst people or communities who are bilingual and may slip into their native tongue. There are both pros and cons of code-switching but it is worth remembering that it is a product of systemic racism which can demand emotional labour from, and cause stress to those who feel the need to code switch8:

Pros of code-switching can include:

  • ‘Fitting in’ with the dominant group
  • Feeling safer in white spaces although this is not completely a pro, because the focus is on making white people feel more comfortable
  • Navigate some environments more safely
  • May protect from discrimination

Cons of code-switching can include:

  • Not able to be their true selves
  • Can cause tension between self-expression and social acceptance
  • Emotionally draining and can lead to burnout
  • High levels of emotional labour around ‘acting right’
  • A reminder of oppressive systems9,10

What can we do?

Becoming an ally is a key factor in the creation of workplaces where everyone feels safe to be their true authentic selves and contribute fully. Our Inclusion Allies workshop creates a safe space where structured, open dialogue can take place with one of our Diversity and Inclusion Specialists. Learning about why we have unconscious biases, why we make stereotype judgements, and their consequences is a vital part of our workshop.

Read our blog on Why is Allyship Important?

Dismantling systems which keep marginalised groups in their place is a key role of allyship as well as acknowledging what the dominant culture is whilst challenging our assumptions. This requires introspection, listening, feedback, and most importantly, psychological safety. It means exploring what the policies and norms are of your workplace and asking the key questions such as, “why are we doing this?”, “does it make business sense?” and challenging comments such as “that’s just how we do things around here” or “it’s always been that way”11.

Read our blog on Psychological Safety

Included in our Inclusion Allies workshop is a TED Talk by Chandra Arthur: The Cost of Code-Switching where she raises this excellent point:

“Instead of the brand of diversity which purports that minorities are acceptable provided that they behave in a specific way, what about a truer sense of diversity, where people are praised for their uniqueness and the cultural capital they bring to places.”

Creating safe inclusive workplaces will help reduce the pressure on people who feel the need to code-switch:

  • Ensure policies take the needs of all groups into consideration, with marginalized groups at the forefront
  • Use language that is more racially-aware to help people feel safer about discussing and sharing their experiences
  • Think about your internal response when you hear people speaking in a different language. Think about what is causing your response and what may be influencing it
  • A culturally aware therapist12 where no code-switching is required can help those who are feeling resentment, exhaustion and burnout from code switching13

Think of how much more could be achieved if employees could focus on their role, problem-solve, innovate, and progress instead of having to navigate the uncertainty of cultural compatibility.

  1. What is code switching?
  2. Code-Switching: What Does It Mean and Why Do People Do It?
  3. Dove CROWN Research Study
  4. Code Switching: Definition, Types and Examples
  5. Rachel Jeantel On Trial
  6. What is Code-Switching? Between The Lines
  7. What White People Don’t Understand About Rachel Jeantel
  8. How to Seek Support When Experiencing White Supremacist Harm
  9. What Is Code-Switching?
  10. To be, or not to be… Black: The effects of racial codeswitching on perceived professionalism in the workplace
  11. Code-Switching in the Workplace: Understanding and Dismantling Cultures of Power
  12. How to Find a Culturally Sensitive Therapist
  13. Four tips for creating a safe and inclusive workplace

Find out more

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