Code-Switching: We Are Never Getting Back Together

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In 2018, I decided to break up with code-switching. I had code-switched for as long as I could remember as a way to navigate white spaces and spaces that were not intended for me.

Code-switching can look different for everyone:

• How you talk

• What you talk about

• How you dress

• How you behave

For me, it was a combination of many things, but mostly it was me trying to “fit in” in the spaces that I entered. It feels especially necessary when you are the “only” or one of few people who hold your identity at work — as if you need to be on your best behavior.

We are living in an era where our work lives bleed into our personal lives and vice versa.

This is new for so many, but for those who hold marginalized identities, this has always been the case. We have always been hyperaware of the boundaries of our realities and how to mask them. But just because we pretend the realities are not there does not make that the truth.

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Societal traumas weigh on us like paperweights on origami birds, and we are expected to continue on quietly, unbothered and unphased. From a young age, that is exactly what I did. I straightened my hair until the ends burned off, I changed my voice, and I only shopped in stores I saw my white classmates shopping in — anything to chameleon into their inner circles. I was unaware that I couldn’t wash the Blackness off of me — I could only disguise it.

I learned to code-switch as a second language.

I turned on my phone-voice with ease, enunciating differently, tossing in words I would never use alone in my room.

I spent my teenage and early adult years running from myself because I felt that I was my own enemy in a world where success is painted in brushstrokes of white. I spent years hating myself because I believed that I inherently was my own enemy.

I remember the feeling of immense relief I had the first time I wore my hair out and curly to work. I also remember the slew of microaggressions that followed.

Showing up wholly as yourself is not without risk. Regardless of the trend of employers asking people to “bring their whole selves” to work, we haven’t solved for the traumatic experiences that come with honoring our humanity at work. One study found 80 percent of Black women have felt as if they needed to change their hairstyle in order to be acceptable at work. We are conditioned to believe that the hair that grows out of our heads is not enough.

Oftentimes, employers ask us for authenticity without fully understanding that authenticity isn’t painting our identities in happy colors but painting them truthfully. Authenticity is about the human experience, and let me tell you: The human experience is messy.

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I remember the first time a company asked for parts of me. As I left the interview, they said “we are so excited about you — you have such a diverse perspective but…” I knew immediately at the “but” that this was going in the wrong direction but I dutifully nodded my head and smiled as she finished her sentence. I remember driving home, white knuckles on the steering wheel, as I realized that work is personal.

I was seething with red hot rage. I saw how often I had worked for someone who didn’t give a flying heck about who I was as a person, as a human being. They saw me as a Black stock photo. They’d slap me on their career site or on their “women in tech” panel and yell from the rooftops, “We’re diverse!” Work has always been personal. We’re expected to set boundaries in our relationships and friendships. Why are we expected to shy away from this at work?

Too often I am asked why we are talking about race, gender, pronouns and queerness at work. My answer is always the same.

I’m still Black at work.

I’m still queer at work.

Work is inherently personal because we are not robots. We do not strip ourselves of our humanity at the front door or as we log in to Slack at 9 a.m. No one should have to hide pieces of themselves in order to feel worthy of success, a paycheck or acceptance. We are expected to trade paychecks for the comfort of others. We are expected to make ourselves palatable and to tiptoe around our truths.

If we spend so much of our time tailoring our presentation of ourselves, how can we give 100 percent to what we are supposed to be doing from 9-5? People should not have to break to know success. We should not have to break to be whole.

There is privilege in being able to break up with code-switching because not all organizations have done the work to create environments that foster safety. Organizations and their leaders are responsible for creating spaces that allow people to exist however they need to.

Want to know what your organization can do to start fostering safety?

• The C-suite has to be willing to do the work to acknowledge the harm that their organization has caused people in the past and will continue to cause without change.

• Write and enforce policies that protect marginalized communities.

• Understand, truly, that representation matters at all levels.

• Acknowledge whose voice is not at the table when making decisions.

• Inclusion and equity are not just a recruiting strategy — they need to be embedded in every business vertical.

• This work is not a once-a-year DEI course; this work is every day and every person’s work.

As leaders, we must be willing to check our biases and understand how our expectations, communications and practices have encouraged our teams to feel as if code-switching was necessary. This work has to start with us. Having intentional conversations with yourself is often hard but necessary.

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