• vanessabelleau

Let's talk about Code-Switching

"If you want to make some money here, use your White voice!"

This quote comes from Boots Riley's 2018 film 'Sorry to Bother You'.


When Cassius "Cash" Green gets a job as a Telemarketer. He has trouble with customers until his older coworker Langston tells him to use his "white voice". After using his "white voice" Cassius excels in his career.


This is an example of code-switching. Whilst this is fictional, code-switching is very much real thing that affects real people every day!


So we need to talk about code-switching because it happens ... a lot.


What is Code-Switching?


Definition time! Code-switching is the “process of shifting from one linguistic code (a language or dialect) to another, depending on the social context or conversational setting". The term was coined by sociolinguist Einar Haugen in 1954.


In a D&I context, code-switching is a survival technique used by people from ethnic minorities/different cultural backgrounds to blend into social and professional situations, often dictated by the dominant culture.


Code-switching happens when people in marginalised groups either consciously or subconsciously alter their behaviour and personality to “fit in” with what is deemed acceptable by the dominant group.


For example a Black woman will change the tone of her voice, speech mannerism and even the style of her hair to conform to what is seen as the desired traits at the workplace. She does this as society teaches her it increases her chance of professional success and to avoid being labelled by negative stereotypes. Those desired traits are held and enforced by dominant groups that hold power, often White males.


This happens more often than you think! To the people who think that code-switching is trying trying to fit into the White culture, but it's not it’s surviving it'


Seriously Code-Switching happens a lot


It happens more often than you think! Some even think that code-switching

is not trying to fit into the White culture, it’s surviving it'


In her book, Becoming, Michelle Obama spoke about her experiences of code-switching. She said


“At one point one of the girls, a second, third, or fourth cousin of mine, gave me a sideways look and said, just a touch hotly, ‘How come you talk like a white girl?’”
“The question was pointed, meant as an insult or challenge, but it also came from an earnest place,”
“It held a kernel that was confusing for both of us. We seemed to be related but of two different worlds.”

For more real world experiences of code-switching have a read of this VICE article by Moses Monterroza, 'People of Color Talk About the Times They ‘Code-Switched.' It's article that shows just how real code-switching is.


Why is Code-Switching not ok?


Firstly, code-switching is exhausting. It require someone to repress a side of themselves. Code-switching happens because the environment does not allow for someone to be themselves without fear of being penalised, whether it is missing out on a job because of their name or being labelled a stereotype as a result of how they speak.


Code-switching masks the authentic self. It goes against the idea of belonging as nobody should feel that they HAVE TO negate their true selves fully to be accepted. Period.


What can you do?


For your POC friends, your friends who come from a different cultural background than yours, for their families, their future, their wellbeing, their mental health there are a few things you can do.

  • Check yourself! Do you give someone a nickname because you can't pronounce their real name? Do you make assumptions about someone based on how they talk or dress? Learn how to embrace everyone’s difference. Make the effort!

  • Listen to other people' experiences, ask questions about their culture. Show that you genuinely care about them as people! Think about how you can help them feel more comfortable being themselves.

  • Be aware of how people from ethnic minorities/different cultural backgrounds behave around you: the way they speak, answer questions/ don’t ask questions, etc


Let's focused on learning more about others and creating one action at a time to create a better society


If you want to work with me to check your bias, reflect on assumptions that you wrongly make and commit to doing better to create more inclusive environments. Get in touch.


Let's do this!


7 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All