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Code Switching: A Double-Edged Sword
Is it possible to be personally, professionally successful, and authentic at the same time?

For those within the majority, the answer may be an apparent and obvious “yes, of course.” For those within the minority, experience and conventional, generational knowledge would strongly argue the opposite.

I remember having a conversation with my grandfather years ago regarding how it would be wise for me to begin incorporating “proper English” into my daily life and filtering out slang, abbreviations, and improper grammar. His argument was simple, if I continued to talk and write like those I grew up around I would not be successful in corporate America. Put another way, if I presented myself as too black, I would not make it in white-corporate America. As a black man in marketing, my grandfather, was well practiced in downplaying his identity in order to have access to opportunities for upward mobility and recognition. He was taught to code-switch in order to succeed and he was teaching me to do the same.

Put simply, code switching is the ability to alter one’s language, behavior, or tone depending on the context or situation. It is often used to adapt to social, cultural, or professional environments, and is particularly common in situations where there is a clear distinction between majority and minority groups. For me personally, I have integrated code switching into my set of soft-skills like so many other BIPOC and underrepresented professionals. It now comes as natural as drinking my fourth cup of coffee just before 2PM on a weekday. It’s necessary, and likely will be that way for quite some time.

It is not my place to layout the exact manner in how I code switch, or how those outside of the group can join in and feel included. What I can do is provide a short perspective on the benefits and drawbacks as they relate to my personal experience. I do consider myself fortunate to work in an environment which does it best to encourage individuals to be themselves at work. When at the office I do not feel pressured to actively minimize my black identity. Natural hair styles are allowed. Dress is accepting of and encompassing various styles. Yes, the “be professional” subtext still exists but it is to a lesser degree than other organizations I have been a part of. All the while, I still code switch, because despite how inclusive my surroundings are, it is a reinforced practice that ensures that at the very least my opportunities of success will not be compromised based on ill-preconceived notions.

Having personal and professional success should not be hindered by my racial identity and my socio-economic upbringing is as good of a reason to continue to code switch, however it does come at a cost. Those who code switch, myself included, tend to self-report feelings of inauthenticity and a warped perspective of self. Feeling the need to code switch subconsciously reinforces prejudice and stereotypes that often culminate in the feeling of not being good enough. Those feelings are things that I have learned to cope with and manage, however this is not true for everyone else. At the same time, those who do or do not code switch should not be made to feel lesser or better than their peers. At its core code switching represents a dilemma that many black professionals in America face: should I suppress my cultural identity for the sake of career success, or should I sacrifice potential career advancement for the sake of bringing their whole selves to work ?

Like most things DEI related, this topic is complex and interconnected, not easily solved. However, understanding the roots of code switching, its importance, and how it is interconnected with your own freedom to be authentic are great places to start. Indigenous Australian activist and artist, Lilla Watson, once said, “if you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberations are bound up with mine, then let us work together.” My code switching is an easy artifact to show that I am not comfortable bringing my full self to work, and if that’s true then there is a high chance that you also do not feel comfortable bringing your full self to work.

We can agree that our struggles are connected, then we can both work towards a mutual understanding. Creating an atmosphere where we all can find the courage and peace of being one’s truest self, benefits the greater good for all.