Is the End of Code-Switching Nigh?

Writers weigh in on their cultural comms style

Photo: Hinterhaus Productions/Getty Images

Talking White.

That’s what they called it back when I was a kid and that’s what they still call it now. Talking White meant avoiding the Black vernacular and cultural phrases stemming from spending three days a week in church and the remainder on my grandmother’s porch. Some people applauded that language. Others lambasted it. But all agreed that “talking White” was the best way to get and to keep a job no matter the race of the folks doing the hiring.

The ability to properly switch between White speak and Black speak, or to blend it together at will, is a superpower in the United States. Very few people can actually do this type of code-switching unless they are Black. And it’s not just about language. It’s also tone, inflection, modulation, and emphasis. For some it’s about hair, style of dress, and even their stance and walking gait. But lately it seems that a number of people are stepping forward to say they are tired of the switcheroo and plan to fully embrace their own cultural vernacular in all spaces — including at work.

This can only be a good thing in the fight to erase racism — showing up as your authentic self.

The Only Black Guy in the Office is a column written by an anonymous Black man who has wry observations about being the only one. This week’s piece gets at the code-switching issue quite clearly.

Keydra Manns, in ZORA, also penned a lovely essay about her decision to stop the switch. In part she says this:

Per NPR’s Code Switch podcast, code-switching is “the practice of shifting the languages you use or the way you express yourself in your conversations.” But for me, it went beyond language. Starting from pre-K, and going through college and my first job, I altered my image and speech in the presence of White people, thinking it would lead to acceptance and help propel my career.

But it didn’t. Just like that little girl who pretended while sitting on all fours, I was left feeling inauthentic, small, and less than. At my lowest moments, those memories haunt me, but they provide a pertinent lesson for 2020 now that I’ve decided to leave code-switching behind for good.

Of course, there are situations where code-switching must occur because it is possibly a life-saving skill. (Being stopped by the police comes to mind as one of those spaces where code-switching is essential for many people.) However, part of the racial reckoning happening in this country right now is occurring because people need to finally see, acknowledge, and support Black people for who we are and how we show up. We are not monolithic, so this means different things for different people. But whoever and however we are, it should be okay to talk, walk, dress, and sway any way that we choose. Resisting the call to code-switch is yet another path to freedom.

Follow Momentum for more stories on race in the workplace.

If you are a hiring manager or an employee interested in such topics, consider this writer’s viewpoint that diversity initiatives are best served by “letting go” of White comfort. That’s the only way to order to succeed.

Director, Multicultural @Medium. Focusing on ZORA, Momentum, Level and bolstering creators of color. All ideas welcome. And yes, I’ll still be writing.

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