There’s been a lot of talk recently - as there always is - about code switching or, as I think of it, Black and Brown people contorting themselves into boxes to fit in with norms created by and for whiteness. Language is my jam - I have more than a passing familiarity with a couple of Caribbean Creole languages, and once was fluent in a couple of European languages. So switching linguistically is natural for me.
But for Black people, codeswitching isn’t just about changing the way we speak, though I’ll get back to that. There are all sorts of other ways in which we make ourselves less than we are to fit into some perceived notion of professionalism or decorum that’s often rooted in white supremacy.
Codeswitching with hair
Let’s start from the top down - with our hair. This idea that Black hair is unprofessional or untidy happens in a lot of white majority spaces. There are hundreds of stories of people being asked to “do something with their hair”. And that something was to make it comply more with European norms. Most Black women of a certain age remember the pain when the relaxer stayed in a little too long; some are still going through that today. All of that just to make our hair more “acceptable”, no matter how much personal or emotional pain it caused us.
This also happens in Black majority spaces. I’ve said before that in going for a tour rep job way back when in Black majority Barbados, the white interviewer said my braids were unacceptable for the job. And there have been many spaces (both global majority and other) where my natural hair is thought of as a brave or unusual choice.
It’s taken me a while to do so boldly, but I unequivocally reject that idea. There can’t be anything wrong with wearing my hair the way it grows out of my head. And the fact that some places have had to legislate Black hair into acceptability - see the CROWN Act - shows how deeply flawed our system is.
Codeswitching with clothing
Then there are the clothes - that fine line between elegance and casual. Casual Fridays can’t be too casual for many Black people. Not for us the ripped jeans and strappy tops at work. Not for us the hoodies. No, we need to be covered up and preferably dressed as if we’re in the C-suite.
As a woman there are even more expectations. Some workplaces want to dictate what you can and cannot wear, whether that’s banning trousers or favoring high heels for women. The preoccupation with what women wear in particular, is both patriarchal and patronizing, and it’s time for it to stop. Our mode of dress doesn’t affect our ability to do our work, and if you have objectified us to the point where it distracts you, shouldn’t that really be your problem?
Codeswitching with behavior
Next, the behavior - you can’t be too loud or boisterous, but you also can’t be too quiet. Be a little animated and you become part of the “loud Black people” trope; be too quiet and people will probably think you’re sullen or ignorant. Basically, anything you do is open to misinterpretation where it would be perfectly acceptable from someone else of a different hue.
And don’t be gathering with other Black people either - your colleagues will lose their minds and assume you are plotting something, though really you’re probably just looking for a respite from the hostility.
If you bring lunch to work, nothing too “ethnic”, and nothing with an odor people will comment on. If this means your food is way blander than usual, so be it. That’s way better than having white colleagues comment positively or negatively on your food - something you’d never dream of doing about theirs.
Codeswitching with language
Back to where I started, there’s your speech, which is what many people think about when you talk about codeswitching, and it’s a real thing.
The way it works is that instead of speaking naturally and normally, you use the same slang as the people in the office, so no one can suspect you of being other.
I read a story on LinkedIn recently about how the banter between two Black colleagues was misinterpreted by their white boss, and one colleague got reprimanded for it. This is another reason why Black people can’t relax.
And I’ve had the experience more than once in the workplace of people with strong British regional accents assuming from the color of my skin that they wouldn’t be able to understand me and, worse, that I wouldn’t be able to understand them. You can imagine how infuriating it was when they decided they had to speak to me slowly and loudly in a condescending way.
These are just a few examples of ways in which Black people and others codeswitch outside their homes. As you can imagine, it soon gets exhausting.
What can you do as an ally?
I often like to leave would-be allies with an action they can take, but I found myself a little stumped as I was writing this. That’s because even if you’re “one of the good folks”, most Black people (or other people who face isms won’t know that and won’t trust that you are.) So all you can do is avoid being either ridiculously enthusiastic or inappropriately critical of Black people’s hair, clothing, language and behavior. If it’s not something you’d dream of saying to your white colleagues, then think about whether it’s worthy of comment when your Black colleagues are involved.
People who face isms, have you got any codeswitching experiences to share? Drop them in the comments.
© Sharon Hurley Hall, 2022. All Rights Reserved.
Cover photo courtesy of Getty Images. Image credit: tomozina