Code Switching: Social Survival or Cultural Suicide

We raise children and tell them to look around the world. Everything that the light touches could be theirs. What we willfully neglect to tell them is that they’ll never access these lands by being themselves. Imagine a bedtime story from Mom: “And the princess lived the rest of her life worried whether her hair made her look less capable, whether her body made her look too sexy or not enough, whether her way of speaking would put in question her intelligence, whether her mannerisms would keep her out of key rooms. The princess would never be happy until she assimilated, conformed to the way things are, and aligned her priorities to the popular definitions of success. Living happily is living accordingly.” After this story, what dreams would her daughter allow herself to explore?

Multitude

Code switching can be understood as modifying your language, physical presentation, interests etc. to suit different settings. For example, someone cutting her locs before a job interview, or putting on a “white voice” when dealing with an office or the law for optimal results. As many who write about code switching will bring up, Obama was very talented at it. You saw it in plain sight, there were even memes: standard handshakes for white men, holding handshakes, pull, and back dap for black men. He could get from the white house to the trap house without skipping a beat.

I remember watching the code switching episode of Issa Rae’s Insecure on HBO (Season 1, Ep. 3). In it, a young lawyer interns at Molly’s firm. Her arguments are unorthodox but brilliant, she is radiant and able to connect to others, she has a history of accomplishments, she gets results. However, Rasheeda has a little problem with “switching it up” as Molly takes her into her office to suggest. She is loud, wears braids and bright lipstick, laughs and tells stories in a much more “familiar” way than the settings of a million-dollar law firm are very much used to. Basically, she doesn’t code switch. 

Rasheeda gets offended and tells Molly that she has nothing to switch up since she never had to switch it up before and was able to secure the internship anyway. Fast forward to the white female Senior Partner who asks Molly to “talk” to Rasheeda, to which Molly responds that any comments would have more weight coming from a Senior Partner than herself. This is not until after Molly agonizes over how to respond to the request during most of the episode. 

When the episode was first released, I watched it with a friend who might be a lot more comfortable with the dystopian nightmare that is corporate culture than I am. Throughout the episode, we were having two separate experiences. To him, it made sense. He was one hundred percent with Molly, fully understanding that one simply cannot succeed in Corporate America, probably the world, going on as Rasheeda had started to. 

Here I was, fully understanding the concept, but hoping for a different outcome. Why couldn’t Rasheeda be the one to stay and get the bag while remaining herself? Maybe she was too good to pass. I wanted to finally see a way where the story could have a different ending. But I see how that can be interpreted as naive, immature, dream-like thinking. I’m here to argue it doesn’t have to be.  

Seriously, watch this video. She killed it.

I remember my first run-ins with code switching. It was an explicit concept taught at school, in Haiti. I was President of my class committee, standing in front of the class, announcing our plans for the year, in Kreyòl. These were my friends, people I spoke with in that language on a regular basis. Yet I was pulled aside by one of our school officials who was passing by the classroom, to discuss how I should be addressing the class in French to denote my position and also the fact that we were in school. 

Without diving into the specifics of Kreyòl vs. French, to many in Haiti being able to express yourself in French is the epitome of code switching. Not doing so, regardless of whether everyone around you could fully understand you in Kreyòl, could carry severe consequences for your future, the same way that code switching is fundamental here in the US, especially in your professional life. The remnants of imperialism choke out life in our communities like a surprise fish bone. 

It’s not all bad. Code switching sometimes feels good in an in-group. Part of the beauty of having Haitian friends is being able to speak Kreyol in public when needed. It’s being able to know exactly when the “gita” is going to drop on a Konpa song and already be in position for the gouyad. It’s switching between the languages for emphasis, when a phrase just has to be said in Kreyol, when the English counterpart (if it exists) will simply not do. But we wish this was all code switching was about. 

Some argue that code switching is not any more harmful than speaking a different language when traveling. Yes, sometimes it includes a dress code or a tone of voice, but who’s not doing that anyway? You’re not talking to your boss the way you talk to your homegirl, period. 

Are you willing to pay the cost of code switching? Are you in a position to choose not to pay it?

That’s a valid argument. If you are switching your codes to send a signal to your audience that you honor and respect their ways of life, you are attempting to connect. However, a businessman in a foreign country is not expected to be like the businessmen in that country, he is not judged based on how well he assimilates. Yes he can make a faux pas, which carries consequences, but ultimately he only has to care or pretend to care temporarily for specific reasons. 

This argument is not attacking the core issue that I’m identifying with code switching. Specifically within the context of the workplace, code switching is often understood as going from casual to “professional”. You don’t wear jeans, you wear slacks. You don’t wear locs, you wear a perm or bundles. It causes me to ask, who defines what is “professional”? Who is the model for “professional”? Given when these workplace structures and customs were established, it was done so within larger structures of power (first with white men only, then white women, then black men, then black women and other people of color), wouldn’t it make sense to question these structures and customs today? 

An adult working full-time is expected to spend between 40 – 60 hours a week in an office, which is a significant portion of their lives. Requiring that we code-switch to fit the dominant forms of being because someone decided they were more “professional” is essentially asking us to deny significant parts of who we are for most of our lives in order to “survive” advertised as thriving. 

How should being “professional” be defined? Perhaps by the quality of your work? Your dedication? Your ability to learn and grow? Your grasp of the matter at hand and how to expand on that? What is being “professional”? Why is it about conforming and white-washing? Why should it be about how I’ve modified my body, how I wear my hair, how my body holds on to the cloth of apparel that would be considered “professional” on others?

Code switching denies the multitudes that we contain within ourselves. Yes I know eighty percent of Young M.A.’s lyrics on Herstory, but I also read Plato’s Republic, and spirales from Franketienne, and I’ve almost memorized Maurice Sixto’s repertoire as well as podcasts on the Internet of Things, and I’m obsessed with Doctor Who as well as Power and How I Met Your Mother. I can talk to you about politics with a firm understanding of how governments work, tech with a full grasp of algorithms and experience design, and I can talk to you about Meg Thee Stallion’s latest sexcapades with G-Easy and black twitter’s reaction. At your request, I can tie it all with a neat bow about the culture industry, experience economy, and economics of attention. 

And I am sooo much more than these things. When I stand in the conference room giving a presentation, when I’m putting my course materials together for a class I’m teaching, when I’m in my seminar classes opining about the week’s reading, when i’m behind my desk recording my podcast or in my living room drinking wine with my friends, I’m still myself. My accent doesn’t discount my intelligence, nor do my locs I definitely should have retwisted last week. What you see in front of you is the totality of who I am and my sources of inspiration deserve their day in the spotlight, not just those I expect my audience to understand or find “respectable”. 

Since 2020 began, I’ve been oscillating between the ideas of going back to the corporate world vs. staying in academia and pursuing my Doctorate. I went to see my mentor and informed him of the crossroads where I found myself. Being a good advisor, he first asked me why and other framing questions to gauge where my head was at. His principal reservation besides the pay (he’s a professor himself in my field), was the racism alive and well within the academy. “You get placed in a box and end up having to be representative of the communities you inhabit,” he warned. 

Here he discusses code-switching demands in academia and the choice left to make.

While we discussed the pros and cons of life in academia for a young black queer woman from an immigrant family, I started to get a clearer idea of what I was looking for. The crushing weight I felt in the corporate world is not only about the lack of responsibility and trust, the slow advancement for my demographic, the overt stealing of ideas with no compensation, the monotony, boredom, or small talk, it was this inability to express myself for the sake of survival. 

No one wants to have a lively debate with me by the water cooler about the 10 micro-aggressions I experienced before my morning coffee, they don’t want to have a theoretical perspective on the bullshit new software we all have to use now. You want to get paid? Then Just do It. They pay you enough to get used to a lifestyle you won’t have enough time to enjoy, that you must now maintain and expand until you retire. Your convictions, your values, your boundaries become just rope for you to hang yourself. 

During my conversation with him, I realized that my fantasy was that in academia, a different future was available to me. Maybe not so much as actually changing the internal structures of the academy itself, but at least we could talk about stuff, right? We could have round tables, conference discussions, we could even write entire books about them. I could be fully myself. But that’s even more naive, immature, dream-like thinking. 

The reality is, life in academia is eerily similar to corporate life, only in different ways. Yes we can have the discussions and writings about concepts that we’ve identified and named, but they’re not necessarily useful beyond the scope of understanding. When it comes to putting things in practice, to actually reform these structures that we’ve spotlighted, we give up, because the solutions just don’t seem feasible, or maybe they were not even the goal in the first place. 

I want to stop code switching. I want to walk into a room and not have to hide any corner of myself or where my ideas and abilities come from. The knowledge that I’ve accumulated from my different cultures doesn’t get validated through the code-switch process. Au contraire, this knowledge and tradition is inherently valid, and deserves to be visible through my work, how I present myself, how I share my light. 

No one place is going to give me that gift. This is what I’m learning as I make my decision. I’m not going to find a safe refuge in academia from people who want to mold me into who they assume I am or think I should be. This particular brand of chaos is everywhere. Developing my resistance to it, however, is primarily an internal battle. 

Agency, our ability to act and make decisions for our greatest good, is a paramount responsibility that we cannot outsource to people, places, or things. It is also our superpower. Maybe it is safe to abide by code-switching, only to vocalize our frustrations when they go a “bit too far” like banning our babies out of school for their hair daring to grow upwards like a fist. Maybe it’s survival. Maybe it’s not even a problem, we enjoy the glamour and the privilege. 

What I do know is, that nothing is going to change if before we start, we’re already convinced that “it’s just the way it is.” Nothing changes without a fight, and this is a personal one. A privileged one. Probably a losing one. But what is self-expression if not the outward declaration of our decision to live our life by our own rules? If “surviving” is not a temporary stop towards fully living and thriving, isn’t it just excruciating, slow suicide? 


In our second 99 percent anomaly Podcast episode, we discussed this very question, is code-switching respectability politics? You should check it out!

2 thoughts on “Code Switching: Social Survival or Cultural Suicide

  1. My daughter lost some friends due to code switching and my response was why are you switching to conform? Come to think of it , I do code switch too. My attitude and tone are different when I’m with my Nigerian friends compared to when I’m with non-Nigerians. But I explained to my daughter that code switching that will make you look unappealing to the other side is unacceptable.

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    1. Yep, I completely agree, “code switching that will make you unappealing to the other side is unacceptable.” It is most definitely not our job to dilute our essence to make others feel comfortable or to abide by their definition of “respectable”.

      Like

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