I remember my awakening to code switching. It was at my first job in a predominantly white organization after moving to the United States. I was standing in a room with a few of the Black employees who had assembled after an organizational meet-up. I looked around, sensing something was different about my colleagues. They were freer, more relaxed, expansively taking up more space in the room. Even the way they spoke had changed – the rhythm, the cadence of their voice, their accents.
I realized then, that while I had been in many public meetings with them for months, this was the first time I was truly “seeing” them, in the fullness of who they were. Free of the white gaze and the need to conform for survival and access.
What Is Code Switching?
According to researchers, “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.”
Black women and women of color know what this looks like in action here in the United States – smiling more often so you’re perceived as less threatening, reigning in your passion during meetings so you don’t appear confrontational, using the dominant group’s language so you are taken seriously, remaining calm through slights and microaggressions to avoid being tone policed or seen as the “angry Black woman”, or carefully choosing which hairstyle you wear to work to so you don’t “cause all this conversation”. It’s a watering down of self to fit in, to stave off being diminished or overlooked in everyday work and to combat harmful racial stereotypes.
How Are We Coping?
Today, in a pandemic that left many of us working from home, the consensus is that in an online environment, compared to being in person, the burden to code switch has been reduced. Black women and women of color report that in working from home, there was a noticeable reduction in the pressure to code switch and microaggressions.
The reasons why are varied, but for one my coaching clients, *Grace, the primary reason was to avoid having to squeeze back into the restrictions that came from trying to fit in. She came to me to work through her organization’s call to go back to the office. As she explained, “it’s just so much freeing to not have to constantly put so much effort into my behavior, to speak a certain way, to look a certain way, to conform.” She had also gotten accustomed to turning her camera off during those moments when she needed to roll her eyes at a misogynistic comment. Or where her face told the full story of how she felt when a colleague was committing a microaggression.
It’s therefore, not surprising that a 2021 survey found that 97 percent of Black respondents preferred a fully remote or hybrid workplace. The research consistently shows that Black women and women of color often don’t want to return to in-person work.
What Needs To Happen
To a certain extent, everyone code switches at work. A 2022 study reveals that more than 3 in 5 employees are currently hiding at least one thing about their identity from their employer and 64% said that they’ve experienced backlash after revealing something about themselves. But it goes far deeper when it comes to Black employees. A 2021 study from Cornell University found “that racial codeswitching is a necessary behavior for Black employees to be perceived as professionals…Further, it places a burden on Black employees to chronically monitor their appearance, speech and behaviors while at work, possibly contributing to burnout and fatigue.” The outcome is that Black employees are unintentionally penalized for not fitting into the culture.
If you are heading back to in-office work, then ensure it’s to a company engaged in serious and active diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work. This is key to reducing the burden of code switching. One that increases a sense of belonging (that feeling that you can retain your unique characteristics and still be treated as an insider).
Code switching is not an individual problem for you to solve, it’s a systemic one that organizations need to work on. Cornell University findings identified a pathway to help combat code switching: “increasing representation of nonwhite employees in leadership levels, questioning the unspoken cultural norms that exist in their organization, and reducing monitoring behaviors that scrutinize the appearance and behaviors of marginalized employees.”