The whole subject of code-switching, as it stands now, makes my skin crawl, especially when I see other Black women promoting it as a positive thing to do. And as grown-ass working Black queens, especially those of us in fields that are majority male or majority white, we've all done some form of code-switching.
When you totally change the way you speak, your mannerisms, your tone, or any other way of communicating, you've earned your place in the Code-switching Club, sis. And if you're among the scores of Black women who have felt they've been forced to code-switch simply to survive and pay the bills, let me tell you now: I chose, a decade ago, to never code-switch to the point of inauthenticity and mental turmoil again, and today, I'm challenging you to do the same.
Before we go any further, let's get into more about what exactly code-switching involves. Research has found that people find code-switching "professional," and that the act can indeed "facilitate career advancement, connection and other forms of success." As much of this can be true since code-switching comes with its rewards, I have found, as a Black woman who has worked in both corporate and small-business environments, that the definition and sacrifice of self for us goes way beyond just speech.
In my experience, if I spoke too loudly, I was labeled "ghetto" or "uncouth." If I spoke too much with my hands, used slang, or didn't enunciate every syllable, I'd be considered unreliable, uneducated, or not trustworthy. If I used analogies that are smart but rooted in "urban" or Black culture, I'd sometimes be laughed at like I was the company comedian.
Code-switching has been found to take an "emotional toll" on Black professionals especially. The motivation behind code-switching involves being accepted in environments where you feel you have no choice but to blend in or totally change who you are during your office hours just so you can pay the bills or advance up the ladder.
This involves fighting against what is called "stereotype threat," and can "undermine motivation and trust and cause underperformance." We all know that as Black women, communication goes beyond just our words and phrases, into the way we use gestures, dress, and our overall powerful swagger. For us, the promotion and rewarding of code-switching (both passively and overtly) are stifling, discriminatory, and, dangerous. It's also rooted in bias and white supremacy. Yep, I said it.
It's one thing to be respectful, eloquent, graceful, and emotionally intelligent. Those are all amazing leadership qualities and skills that are necessary for anybody in any business or social arena. But it's a whole other thing to put Black women in a monolith and force them to totally change who they are every day--- women who are already disenfranchised in the workplace, face double discrimination, are disproportionately underrepresented in the C-suite, and already have to fight to "lean in" and take up space.
So how did I thrive by not code-switching? Here's how I navigated my rebellion against an age-old so-called norm in the workplace:
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1. I aligned myself with organizations, opportunities, and companies that were a fit for my personality, career goals, and values.
I like to change up my hair without a bunch of judgments and questions, and I'm okay with bluntly letting someone know that I'm not in the mood to explain why or how. I like to use slang (hell, even patois), and I talk with my hands. I laugh heartily and I'm passionate about what I do, so yes, sometimes my tone is louder than a whisper. I have a deep Virginia country accent or a very-suspect Trinidadian-Jamaican one, depending on the situation. And all of the clients and publications I work with respect and love those things about me.
Not all Fortune 500 companies are created equal when it comes to truly facilitating diversity and inclusion, both in good and bad ways, but you can indeed find a company where you can just be yourself (whatever that means for you) while doing work that is impactful, challenging, and rewarding.
Go on informational interviews, ask questions about diversity resources and company culture, connect with others who work for your dream brands to get a sense of what it's like in the office, and look up folk on LinkedIn to discern if that company's mission, values, and vibes match with your goals and values.
Also, why not look outside of the corporate realm and work for smaller brands, nonprofits, or startups? I've found that I have the most freedom to just be me working with entrepreneurs or companies that aren't yet at the 500-global-locations stage. Many of the companies I've worked for or with were either Black-owned or women-led, and I've had the most fulfilling career experiences with those types of companies simply because their goals, way of doing business, and priorities were similar to mine.
2. I got real with myself about my personality and communication styles in the workplace--the good, the bad, and the ugly.
I'll be honest here: I've had to get some major mentoring and even pursued a master's degree to learn how to better communicate as a leader. I've found that when I feel slighted or upset, for example, I'm more apt to be super-disrespectful and off-putting, which indeed is unprofessional and alarming to co-workers and clients. I know I'm a good leader, love to help people, and have the experience to guide others, but I keep it very real with myself when I fall short and the actions I need to take to improve.
While code-switching can be demoralizing in certain situations, sometimes we have to confidently know ourselves in order to determine when it's necessary and when it's not.
For example, I've found that raising my voice or tightening my tone can be problematic if a difference of opinion happens, so I've learned to smile, take a deep breath, think first, listen clearly, then respond. I also know I have a strong presence in any situation, and my energy when I walk in a room is super-noticeable. It's a bittersweet gift. (I have always been bossy, and I've had to play leadership roles in my household since childhood, so that can also be misunderstood or taken the wrong way.) Thus, if I really want to serve or get people to endear themselves to me, I can be a bit more graceful in my approach or try not to immediately criticize or correct someone.
The key realization here, though, is that these are all self-improvement actions I take, as a human being, after consistent self-reflection, therapy, training, and journaling, not trauma responses due to being afraid of embodying some unfair Black woman stereotype.
If you're not sure of your strengths and weaknesses as they relate to your workplace communication and experiences, try an assessment like CliftonStrengths, talk with a trusted workplace bestie or mentor, or hire a career or life coach to troubleshoot scenarios and process through your communication styles.
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3. I stopped taking jobs just for the money and focused on my ultimate lifestyle goal and purpose.
I know, I know. This can seem challenging for many of us who have bills to pay and other very expensive obligations. Hear me out: So, instead of staying in a workplace or employment situation, that for me, became toxic simply due to the fact that the culture just wasn't a good fit, I went freelance and decided to take my risks there. If I had to work a customer service or remote tech job in between---just to pay the bills--- yet still have the freedom to seek out the real fit where I could be myself, so be it.
Just as some of us can sacrifice to get that six-figure job at a place where you're okay with cutting off your braids, turning into a whole different character, or wearing a black wig over those red curls (not judging sis; I see you and love you!), some of us must sacrifice in order to reach our end goal of radically saying no to doing those things.
It's everyone's right and unique journey as to what they deem important in order to reach their career goals (which connect to life quality and vision) and being able to wear my hair and nails the way I want, respectfully speak when and how I want, and having the freedom to communicate in ways that are both effective and genuine to me is more important in the grand scheme of things. (Also, these freedoms allow me to connect with the audiences I feel called to serve, thus, I have no choice but to do so.)
I spent years just not being myself, paying so-called dues, and have felt the negative residual effects of doing that. It's wasted years that I could have used pouring into becoming the best, most authentic version of me, and it was a relief to finally say, "Nope, pick somebody else. I'm not the one anymore." And you can, too, sis.
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