Codeswitching is another new term I’ve learned in the past month while examining my whiteness. This one came totally out of the blue. I was participating in a racially diverse video conference specifically talking about racial disparities and system racism. One of the black participants just started talking about the codeswitching they do every day when they get home. All of the white people, and I mean ALL of them, had a very quizzical look on their faces. What in the world were they talking about? Is there a certain code black people use during the day and another code they use at home? What is that about? And why?
Once questioned, they quickly explained the different ways they speak depending upon the audience they’re with. We all found this fascinating. They went on to add that they also talk louder and with more diction and pronunciation around white people. I think white people have been totally oblivious and ignorant about this. We had never heard of such a thing. Now looking back, I’m thinking “how white of us!”. And also, I thought “how exhausting for them.”
The Costs of Codeswitching
In the Harvard Business Review article, The Costs of Codeswitching, they write
“Based on our research and the work of others, we argue that code-switching is one of the key dilemmas that black employees face around race at work. While it is frequently seen as crucial for professional advancement, code-switching often comes at a great psychological cost. If leaders are truly seeking to promote inclusion and address social inequality, they must begin by understanding why a segment of their workforce believes that they cannot truly be themselves in the office. Then they should address what everyone at the company needs to do to change this.”
So, in essence, black people will talk more ‘white’ in the office in order to make ‘white people’ more comfortable. That’s a lot of energy used in addition to ensuring their work is completed with the highest performance possible. Although the switching is seen as advantageous by increasing perceptions of professionalism, it can also have social and psychological repercussions.
I’m thinking it’s time that we, white people work harder to learn more about our black coworkers and people of color. We need to get better at being uncomfortable and learning new things so others aren’t expected to change themselves for our comfort. I believe this is deep socialization, but we can work to change it.
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