I’m a Former “Code-Switcher” and Here’s How I Learned to Be My True Self in the Workplace

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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.

At the time, I didn't know that I was code-switching. All I knew was that certain words, phrases, and even tones of voice weren't considered "corporate-friendly." And I felt that if I wanted to be considered "acceptable" within my workplace, I would have to fit a specific mold.

"We mask our true communication styles and tailor it to a more ‘appeasing’ or ‘palatable’ level of interaction solely for the comfortability of white colleagues," says Byrd. This was exactly my experience, as I found myself withholding my advice for everything from marketing campaigns to social media content. I just didn't want to deal with the repercussions of being perceived as the "controversial Black girl," especially so early in my career.

Says Byrd: "It's hard to bring our “full selves” to work when, generally speaking, the socially accepted norms of professionalism seem to be rooted in white-adjacent behavior and communication styles." She described code-switching as a means for, "not only thriving in the workplace but surviving in it."

How then, you might ask, does an Afro-Latina such as myself begin to feel accepted and celebrated within her company? In short: by finding a new job. Working for a company that made me feel valued became my top priority, and luckily, I was able to find one soon after leaving the fashion position. And the difference was invigorating. This time around, my colleagues not only accepted me, but they also embraced me. I was always encouraged to express my opinions, share my experiences and speak from my cultural perspective, so I did. And if something was ever foreign to them, they asked thoughtful questions that were free of racial bias. The company culture was unorthodox in the best way; It seemed as though executive leadership had no interest in the traditional idea of "professionalism," and focused instead on fostering an environment that was filled with kindness, empathy and dedication.

So, how can more companies create an inclusive workplace for the BIPOC community where workers don’t feel the need to code-switch? For starters, Byrd explains, it's vital that employees of color feel that they have a seat at the table through representation within their executive leadership. "They need to feel comfortable in speaking up without the fear of being misunderstood," she advises. She also suggests that peers should be advocates for the BIPOC community by "becoming a mentor or sponsoring their ventures.” This might seem minimal but can actually provide lasting support and awareness in the journey towards progression.

Both mindfulness and self-awareness can go a long way when it comes to fostering workplace collaboration and encouraging employees to think, speak and behave exactly as they are. After all, what would happen if companies focused less on the idea of “professionalism” and redirected their efforts towards embracing the unique insight of each person? What if employees could focus more on the impact of their work and less on how their ideas would be perceived? Hiring managers are responsible for deciding which candidates are “a right fit,” and if these gatekeepers are not actively checking their racial biases before deciding on who “fits in” with their company, it can be nearly impossible for people like me to be our true selves. In order for us to even get our feet in the door, codeswitching becomes a necessary evil. 

As people of color, we possess a valuable perspective, and it’s time that we embrace that by remaining authentic, speaking up and educating those around us. After all, when we learn to welcome differences, rather than standardize experience, we further our chances of having a larger reach, a bigger impact and a more meaningful end-product. And that, my friends, would be pretty dope.

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