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In 2001, I interviewed for a job at a university.  At the time I had just finished graduate school and I wore my hair in long, heavy braids.

Just before my interview, I remember talking with several of my African American girlfriends about whether or not I should take my hair out of my braids for the interview.

We all agreed that I should remove my braids for the interview and then wait 6 months before putting my hair back in the braids.  Though that conversation took place over 20 years ago those discussions still exist today.

Code Switching

For Black people, how we choose to dress, wear our hair, speak, and express ourselves verbally and physically in a professional context is often an intentional decision, especially those professionals that work in predominantly white environments.

Modifying one’s language, mannerisms, name, hairstyle, and ways of expression can all be forms of code switching.  Researchers Courtney McCluney, Kathrina Robotham, Serentiy Lee, Richard Smith, and Myles Durkee have broadly defined code switching as adjusting one’s style of speech, behavior, or appearance in ways that optimize the comfort of others in exchange for fair treatment, quality service, and employment opportunities.

These researchers studied the costs of code switching as well as the emotional and psychological toll on those who do it.

In the United States, racialized code switching usually occurs in contexts where “professionalism” is based on a white European-American model of professional success.  This model dictates the rules for being successful in a particular environment including how one gets ahead professionally.

This frequently means that successful workers “look and sound” the part, and historically people of color have had to “tone down” aspects of their identity to fit into these environments.

A survival skills in white spaces

The practice has been a historic survival skill for Black professionals in predominantly white work environments.  Taking out my braids for my interview did not make me less Black, it made me less identifiably Black based on my hairstyle.  This is the essence of code-switching – you are still Black but aspects of your Blackness are muted as a way of attempting to attain a job or professional success.

Code switching acknowledges that systemic racism exists in ways that effectively discriminate against professionals of color.  Women, members of the LGBTQIA+ community, and people with accents often code switch as well.

Code switchers understand that relationships at work are built on aspects of similarity (e.g. you and a white colleague went to the same college and can bond over it) and making those in power feel comfortable (to send the message that I am “like you” enough that you feel comfortable with me despite my being Black).  The payoff for muting aspects of one’s true self is supposed to be professional success, but there are significant costs to doing so as well.

Code switchers may also see it as protective because it means that those who work with you do not know who you truly are.  It puts a psychological boundary in place and allows the code switcher control over which aspects of their racial identity are shared and what aspects are not.

The Downsides

McCluney and her colleagues researched the costs of code switching and found that code switchers do not often recognize the psychological and emotional cost of switching back and forth.  At its core, these researchers find that code switching is an impression management strategy.  Some of the downsides they found were:

  • Switching back and forth between one’s natural forms of expression and what is deemed “safe” at work is emotionally stressful.
  • Code switching does not allow for the underlying racism (and other types of isms) to be adequately addressed in the work environment.
  • It can generate hostility between those who code switch and those who do not or cannot.
  • It can leave code switchers feeling devalued because they are not valued for who they actually are.
  • It can serve as a barrier to diversifying the workplace because not everyone wants to or is willing to code switch, and those individuals who do not switch are less likely to work in an environment in which they feel pressured to code switch.

New Laws Hopefully Lesson Need for Code Switching

Essentially, code switching means that workers do not feel psychologically safe in their work environment.  For it to become a thing of the past, these issues need to be addressed effectively which means that work climates need to be truly inclusive of workers, including all aspects of their respective identities.

Several companies have set forth Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives that ironically, may be led by DEI experts who themselves, code switch.  Code switching is likely to continue for now, but as DEI initiatives are becoming more common in companies and other work environments, it is hopeful that these initiatives make workers of color feel less of a need to code switch.

Relatedly, several states have recently enacted CROWN laws that prohibit the discrimination against individuals based on a persona’s hair texture or style if that style or texture is commonly associated with a particular race or national origin.  This legislation allows for some recognition that discrimination based on natural hair styles exists.

It will hopefully encourage those people not comfortable wearing their natural hairstyles at work to feel more comfortable doing so.