A CONVERSATION ABOUT CODE-SWITCHING
Updated: Feb 24
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What’s your superpower? We all have one. Maybe a few. You know what one of my superpowers is? It’s my England cricket jacket. A calming sky blue in colour, perfect for those days when you’re not quite sure of what the temperature is doing outside. The 3 lions over my left pectoral, an unmistakable symbol of Englishness. Sometimes, I’ve walked into pubs…armed with my trusty jacket and I can almost see the inquisitive look in the eyes of those watching me walk through to the bar. Almost as if to say “shouldn’t you be supporting India?” I am not sure an England football shirt would have the same desired impact. But why is it my secret weapon? It’s my method of disarmament. A deterrent. A deterrent of what? I’m not quite sure. But if I’m being brutally honest with myself, it’s my way of showing anyone that might have a problem with me that I am not “other.” I am here. I deserve to belong here. I am proud to be here. I am meant to fit in. It’s one of the ways in which I Code-Switch. I Code-Switch. You Code-Switch. We all Code-Switch together, all of the time, whether you realise it, or not. But should you have to?
The way you speak to your parents is different to the way you speak to your siblings, your friends and your colleagues. Think about your ‘phone voice,’ for example. For some, the degree to which we switch is minimal. For others, it can be drastic. Code-Switching was originally defined as when someone who spoke two languages switched between the two. It’s now more commonly recognised as when someone “adjusts their style of speech, language, appearance or behaviour to fit in or gain acceptance.”[i] Even though we all do it, regardless of race or colour, I want to highlight the impact on those from minority groups. According to research conducted by TotalJobs, 75% of Black women and 65% of South Asian women have felt the need to “tone down” certain phrases or mannerisms,[ii] when interviewing for jobs. My first job after university was a bit of a stopgap but an opportunity for a promotion came up. I put myself forward for the role but didn’t get it. The feedback was interesting. Apparently, the way I spoke was “too urban.” I shrugged my shoulders and moved past it. It wasn’t until I was having a conversation with one of my colleagues, who just happened to also interview for the same job, that it hit me. I mentioned what the feedback was. “That’s such bullsh*t,” I remember him retorting. He was offended (for absence of doubt, he was white). I didn’t understand. Was I too fresh to the working world, and oblivious to what we’d now call ‘micro-aggressions’, that the (now quite obvious) problem with the phrase went over my head? Chandra Arthur is a tech founder. In her TEDxOrlando talk entitled “The Cost of Code Switching,” Chandra speaks about how unapologetic actions can result in consequences, such as not getting a promotion. Case in point. I guess at this point in my career I hadn’t quite learned that I would have to tone down certain mannerisms, or play up to certain expectations, to be accepted. I was polite, courteous, always aware of my surroundings and how I needed to behave. I would always go above and beyond. I was probably as professional as they come but perhaps a little undercooked. Chandra even argues that, in the most extreme cases, these unapologetic actions and the refusal to Code-Switch can be life-threatening.
I think the biggest impact (outside of the life-threatening side of things, of course) of Code-Switching is that you lose a bit of yourself. If you’re from a minority group you’ve most likely already had to deal with rejection, in many forms. You’ve probably lost some of your heritage and identity, in order to fit in. In the most severe cases, you’ve probably had to deal with racial abuse and been degraded as a human, or been considered a lesser person, purely because of the colour of your skin. In the workplace, not fitting in leads to 29% of Black and South Asian women to feel undervalued, with 17% feeling invisible, defeated or anxious[iii]. The ‘assimilationist model’ assumes that the “incomer – along with their culture, belief systems and practices - will be absorbed into the dominant culture.”[iv] Should we then assume that the workplace environment operates on such a model? I understand the need for professionalism, but should organisations also start realising that their employees may well be suffering from negative mental health effects because of the pressure to conform? Shouldn’t organisations start to realise and utilise the special unique traits of their workforce and celebrate the wonder of diversity in language, interests and cultures? Chandra argues (as many will) that the truest sense of diversity is where people are praised for their uniqueness and where there is an acceptance of different speech patterns and visual identity. How long before we get there? Because we sure as hell aren’t there yet.
In Derek A. Bardowell’s book ‘No Win Race,’ Bardowell offers up Frank Bruno as an example of someone who was the “antithesis of the Codes.” Someone who would “play the fool” and appease his audience. In contrast, Bardowell cites Mike Tyson as the “personification of…the Codes.” As Bardowell puts it, ‘Iron’ Mike “won the hearts of black folks because he did not change who or what he was, once he became a mainstream star.” Tyson was unapologetic. That said, if you’ve seen enough of Mike Tyson in interviews, or on film, you’ll know that Tyson would always address those in front of him as ‘Sir’ or ‘Ma’am.’ A staple in Tyson’s vocabulary. Politeness. No matter how non-conforming or unapologetic Mike Tyson was, there was still a desire to be accepted, through politeness. I once took part in a university student’s research project. One of the questions asked of me was how it made me feel to have a drink at a pub. I umm’d and ahh’d for a few seconds and then responded without thinking too much more. “It made me feel like I was a part of British society.” I reflect on that answer a lot. I reflect on why I responded in the way I did. Where was it that I didn’t feel accepted? Why was it that one of the places I did feel accepted was in a pub? It wasn’t some sort of exclusive club, or was it? After all, a pub is about as English an environment you’ll get, right? There was a time in Britain, as recently as the late 60’s and early 70’s, that Black and South Asian people weren’t allowed in certain pubs. If they were, they would have to wait until all white people had been served first, before being attended to. They even had to wait in a separate line. This was the generation of my parents. For me, is having a drink in a pub a sign of acceptance? Maybe. But at this point, let me take you back to my opening paragraph. I still feel as though I need to Code-Switch. I still feel as though people like me are failed by society. But where I have been failed by society, it’s OK. I get around it. Whether it’s right, or wrong, I adapt. Pivot. Code-Switch.
The biggest question for me is whether you should have to Code-Switch, at all? I’m a big fan of context. Answering any question or making any kind of a decision, hypothetical or not, requires context. I think the same goes for whether you should Code-Switch. Context. What’s gone before? What will come after? Where are you and who are you switching for, if at all? What’s the purpose of the switch? I also think it requires a little bit of social awareness and the right level of Emotional Intelligence, otherwise known as EQ (whatever the right level might be). But ultimately, you need to decide on whether to switch yourself.
…and now I have Will Smith’s ‘Switch’ in my head.
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[i] An equal path to progression - An employer’s guide to uplifting Black and South Asian women in the workplace: TotalJobs, The Diversity Trust [ii] An equal path to progression - An employer’s guide to uplifting Black and South Asian women in the workplace: TotalJobs, The Diversity Trust [iii] An equal path to progression - An employer’s guide to uplifting Black and South Asian women in the workplace: TotalJobs, The Diversity Trust [iv] Who do “they” cheer for?: Cricket, diaspora, hybridity and divided loyalties amongst British Asians