What Is Code-Switching?
Understanding the impact of code-switching for racial and ethnic minorities.
Posted December 3, 2020 | Reviewed by Matt Huston
What exactly is code-switching? Many of us may do it and not even realize it. Others may have never heard this term before, and some others may not acknowledge it as a real thing. Usually groups in the latter category don’t acknowledge it because they have never had to engage in it. The privilege of being able to ignore the strategies others must engage in just to be allowed entry into common spaces is something that many take for granted. My goal in this article is to talk about what code-switching is, how it affects the Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) community and my views about how to move forward from here.
The definition of code-switching has not been static and has changed over time along with many other social constructs. In this article, I focus on cultural code-switching that involves the suppression of multiple aspects of one’s cultural identity, which can include type of clothing worn, hair style, speech, or behavior. In the broadest sense, code-switching involves adapting the presentation of oneself in ways that disconnect them from the cultural or racial stereotypes of their group. The goal being to enhance the comfort of others, typically those outside of their cultural or racial group, in hopes of receiving equal treatment and opportunities for advancement. Code-switching is a strategy used by individuals who identify as BIPOC, who often find it necessary to effectively navigate professional settings.
There are multiple examples of code-switching. For example, when a person considers each morning before getting dressed for work or school whether their traditional cultural garments will be viewed as acceptable; whether wearing a turban, hijab or bindi will be off-putting to their colleagues or supervisors; or whether their natural hair (e.g. afro, dreadlocks, braids, etc.) will be seen as unprofessional. Code-switching also involves adapting other aspects of self that may not be as easily identified. In academic and professional settings, many in the BIPOC community are likely familiar with the term “oreo.” And no, I’m not talking about the cookie, but what the cookie represents. Black on the outside, and White on the inside. The use of a “White voice” and other Western, Eurocentric ways of speaking, being, and engaging to “fit in” with non-Hispanic White society.
BIPOC community members are more likely than their non-Hispanic White counterparts to say they feel the need to code-switch. In a study conducted by the Pew Research Center (2019), they found that overall, 4 in 10 Black and Hispanic adults often feel the need to change the way they talk around others of different races and ethnicities, especially among non-Hispanic Whites. Interestingly, the group most affected are Black college graduates under the age of 50, where 53% of this group report feeling the need to switch how they express themselves when they are among people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. Unfortunately, we don’t have recent data on other BIPOC groups, but research suggests we would see similar findings. Further, code-switching is likely significantly under-reported. Why? Because admitting to code-switching can sometimes create tension between an individual and members of the cultural group with which they most strongly identify. And second, many of us begin code-switching unconsciously, without thinking about it, without realizing it is happening.
According to Harvard Business Review (2019), code-switching most often occurs in environments where negative stereotypes about BIPOC individuals don’t align with what is considered normative or appropriate for that environment. This is most commonly in academia and in places of employment. Many have argued code-switching is one of the key dilemmas that BIPOC employees face. I am sure we can all agree that the workplace setting requires some degree of code-switching from everyone, including non-BIPOC employees. All of us likely have had to switch some aspects of our personalities, tone of voice and clothing choices between the home and the office, depending on workplace culture and expectations. Some might even say that this phenomenon is really about being professional and has nothing to do with race.
But let’s ponder this point for a moment. Who decides what is professional and what is unprofessional? Who decides whether an afro or dreadlocks are unacceptable for certain environments? Where do we get messages that cultural or traditional clothing is improper and potentially offensive? I suggest that what we as a society consider to be acceptable and professional in academia and places of employment is largely based upon a standard set by the non-Hispanic White majority. Thus, the conversation about code-switching cannot occur without our recognition of the role that systemic racism, or the racism that is embedded as normal practice within society or an organization that inherently marginalizes people of color, plays in this phenomenon. Often it is the majority non-Hispanic White culture that sets the standard by which all others are judged. Many don’t recognize this as a serious concern that should be addressed and discussed. If BIPOC employees did not feel they would be discriminated against, treated differently, viewed as inferior or less intelligent by their colleagues due to behaving, dressing, and speaking in a manner that aligned with their cultural identity, there would be no compelling reason to engage in code-switching and we would not be having this conversation.
Some may say that it sounds like code-switching is a strategy for success. And perhaps the act of code-switching, in and of itself, is not necessarily bad. However, when people feel forced to code-switch in order to prosper in academic or work environments, it can have negative consequences. Downplaying one’s membership in their racial, ethnic, or cultural group can lead to tensions with in-group members, leading to negative interactions with peers, being called “white” or an “oreo,” or claims that the people who you really care about “don’t know who you really are.” Consciously avoiding race-based stereotypes is hard work, and needing to maintain that attentiveness at all times can be emotionally taxing. I am optimistic that one day we will live in a world where being one’s authentic self in organizational environments does not come at the potential cost of success and upward mobility. There are strategies organizations can take to begin reducing the need for code-switching and the negative consequences BIPOC employees face as a result.
1.) Organizational assessment: Organizations should evaluate how their culture and environment may create pressure for BIPOC employees to code-switch. This can be done by engaging in critical conversations with staff and employees about these topics and should result in the generation of strategies to address shortcomings.
2.) Diversity and inclusion: Working in non-diverse environments often intensifies the need to code-switch. Diversification at all levels to ensure representation of various races, ethnicities, and cultures, as well as other social identifies, is critical. However, we must remember that diversity does not equal inclusion. Inclusive environments—where everyone is not only invited to the table but also has a voice at the table, and is rewarded for using that voice—are necessary.
3.) Leaders can set the standard: When a BIPOC employee reaches a certain level, they have more power and less fear of retaliation. When leaders in an organization bring more of their cultural identity to an organization, employees often feel supported in doing the same. President Barack Obama is a great example of how powerful leaders who bring their cultural identities into even the most formal of environments can change the outlook for everyone looking up to them.
4.) For BIPOC employees, be strategic: Unfortunately, we live in a time where you are faced with a dilemma. Should you suppress your cultural identity for the sake of success? Or risk sacrificing advancement for the sake of being your authentic self in all environments? This dilemma not only poses career and psychological risks for individuals, it also costs organizations, which may miss out on the diverse perspectives and contributions and synergies brought to the table from BIPOC employees who are uncomfortable being their authentic selves. My advice is to be strategic. Understand the culture of the organizations you move within, think about your values and make decisions that align with them. Don’t feel guilty about code-switching: It is not your responsibility to bear the burden of facing a dilemma that you have not created. Protect your mental health at all costs. If you find yourself in a situation so taxing that it is impacting your mental and emotional well-being, it might not be worth the sacrifice. But at the end of the day, this is a decision each individual must make for themselves, until the day we are no longer faced with this dilemma.
Pew Research Center (2019). https://pewrsr.ch/2kAWUH2
Harvard Business Review (2019) https://hbr.org/2019/11/the-costs-of-codeswitching