It was my first gig out of college, an entry-level position in the fashion industry. It wasn't my dream job, but hey, it was at a brand's corporate office, and I figured that at the very least, it would be an opportunity to learn what I didn't want in a job.
Don't worry, this isn't one of those workplace horror stories. But it was an instance when I felt decidedly stifled. See, my team was friendly and all, but I rarely felt a real sense of collaboration, and before I knew it, the fact that I was the only person of color in the entire department became difficult to ignore. I also realized that backhanded compliments, while usually well-meaning, were forms of microaggressions, and they made me feel…bad. "You're so articulate," "I could never pull off that look," and the infamous "Is that your real hair? Can I touch it?” all had my moments away from printing the lyrics to Don't Touch My Hair on a T-shirt—shoutout to Solange Knowles.
But if there's one thing that I've tried to apply to any situation, it's that gratitude is always the answer. And so, to keep a positive attitude about what I had and where I was, I continuously brushed it off. I also unknowingly began to alter my speech to fit into my professional environment, a behavior known as code-switching. Instead of expressing my admiration by saying “This is dope,” I’d say “This is really cool,” a phrase I’d never say in real life.
According to Latesha Byrd, a business professor and certified career coach, code-switching can be defined as, "the practice of changing how we communicate and express ourselves, solely based upon the social group we're engaging with." Byrd goes on to explain that although the term was initially intended to describe multilingual people who unintentionally changed their language while interacting, it has since evolved to describe how POC intentionally alter self-expression within their professional setting. In other words, it can be subconscious, or it can be totally by design.