As a gay, Black man, Jefferson Darrell has been “code-switching” his entire life.
“I once worked in a public-sector organization that suffered from anti-Black racism as well as homophobia,” recalled the Toronto-based founder of consultancy Breakfast Culture, which helps cultivate inclusive workplaces. “Both myself and my white colleague would get excited about our work, yet I was told that my excitement appeared ‘too aggressive and intimidating’ and her excitement was considered ‘passionate.’”
He said this led him to “shut down.” He grew quiet in meetings, speaking only when spoken to out of fear of appearing confrontational or simply not being heard. As a coping mechanism, he would bring a water bottle and take a drink whenever he felt like saying something. He stuck to formal language with his colleagues and avoided discussions about personal and weekend plans.
For Mr. Darrell and so many racialized people, code-switching is a go-to tool used to “fit” into the workplace. It involves modifying the way you speak or behave to accommodate different norms, then switching back to your way of being when you are outside these spaces. Based on various research studies, we know this can be effective; for example, when Black students code-switch between standard English in class and African-American Vernacular English with their friends, their “social standing” rises with each audience.
For many minorities, in fact, sharing interests with the dominant culture and minimizing one’s own cultural background not only increase the likelihood of promotion but help one appear more “professional.”
Now that the culture is starting to put more emphasis on being authentic, Mr. Darrell says he often questions the practice in his personal life. “I feel angry with myself about it because I am sick and tired of adjusting my behaviour for the comfort of others, yet I am expected to sit in discomfort when people are ‘casually racist’ or ‘casually homophobic’ or other forms of xenophobia,” he said.
What code-switching often demands, then, is adopting a set of soft skills to mimic culturally conditioned characteristics that normalize whiteness – things such as communication style, word choice, restraining emotions.
“Black employees are monitored more closely and face more penalties as a result,” said Lorne Foster, a professor of public policy and human rights at York University and the director of the Institute for Social Research. “Black people are not allowed to be Black people in white institutional spaces without adapting to white ways of speaking, dressing and acting. Inclusion means becoming like whites in speech and mannerism.”
“Fitting in,” however, is not how Taheelah Cameron, a Black Toronto-based writer, describes it.
“To have been immersed in these environments where I needed to assimilate to have access proves how much power white people have,” she said. “It’s this idea that Black people cannot be multi-faceted. We’re reduced to either ‘good Blacks’ or criminals, so I’ve code-switched as a means to protect myself … When I code-switch, it is not only about survival, but it’s also about having autonomy, ownership and freedom.”
Prof. Foster suggests thinking of code-switching as being fluent in a second language. Code-switchers, like people who speak more than one language, tend to have better memory, listening, problem-solving and critical-thinking skills, enhanced concentration and the ability to multitask, he says.
That’s why building a supportive network, largely made up of racialized people who can understand what you’re feeling, is crucial to finding comfort during a typical 9-to-5 job, he adds. In the workplace, these are called “affinity groups.” They help with legitimizing one’s identity, networking, collaboration and productivity. They’re also valuable for employers because they attract candidates from racialized or other minority groups, reduce turnover and raise employee morale. He also suggests choosing your battles wisely, as racialized people face daily issues with regards to racism or micro-aggressions.
Mr. Darrell and Ms. Cameron ultimately left the jobs that made them feel like they didn’t belong. While there are still times they must code-switch, they’ve developed personal rubrics for when and why, without letting it erode their identities and self-worth.
“I just want to be me and have the ability to exist and succeed peacefully, minding my own business,” Ms. Cameron said. “And when I’m surrounded by the people that I love and care about, or when I feel safe and sincerely accepted, code-switching becomes less performative. In fact, I engage in a variety of different dialogues and dialect or vernaculars that have contributed to the woman I am now.”
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