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Code-Switching: What’s on Your Dial?

July 7, 2021

For today’s flavour of Secret Sauce, let’s dig deeper on the concept of “code-switching,” especially as it relates to traditionally underrepresented groups.

Code-switching is “the action of shifting between two or more languages, or between dialects or registers of a language, within a discourse, especially in response to a change in social context.” In the workplace, code-switching refers to adjusting your language, mannerisms and in many cases even your appearance to “fit in” with the dominant culture.

For fans of the Netflix program BIG MOUTH, in season four, two Black characters, DeVon and Missy explain code-switching in song “Code-Switching: Master of the Dial” as it relates to the Black experience. (Warning: the pretzel spouts an expletive at the very end.)

Image Credit: Netflix (BIG MOUTH)

Many underrepresented groups cannot bring their whole selves to work, depending on the “dominant workplace culture.” We can’t talk about certain aspects of our lives where our “dominant culture” colleagues can. For example, if one is on the LGBTQ+ spectrum and your employer is homophobic; your heterosexual colleagues can talk openly about their spouses and/or keep a couples photo on their desks, you have to expend energy to keep your same sex relationship hidden. All of this “code-switching” takes additional energy that can affect one’s mental and/or emotional health and ultimately workplace productivity.

Personally, as a Black Gay man I often have to code-switch for my own survival. The world we exist in was created by and for a dominant culture that doesn’t always include people like me. Generally speaking, quite often my very existence is counter to dominant culture narratives and some people find it threatening when I dare to speak my truth. We are witnessing this fact being played out in the media right now where many women of colour who are brave enough to speak their truth are being maligned. Sadly, to stay safe I often have to code-switch for the comfort of both White and Straight people.

Three personal examples from my “Code-Switching Dial”:

1. Aggressive or Passionate? Prior to founding Breakfast Culture, I worked in a public sector organization that suffered from racism and anti-Black racism as well as homophobia. Both myself and my White colleague would each get excited about our work yet our manager would pull me aside to inform me that my excitement appeared too aggressive and intimidating yet her excitement was considered passionate. Whenever I offered counsel or ideas in meetings, I would rarely be heard but when my White colleague would repeat my words without giving me credit it would be considered a brilliant idea. Eventually I would remain quiet in meetings and only speak when spoken to or directly asked questions. As a coping mechanism, I would bring a reusable water bottle and take a drink of water anytime I felt like speaking. I was well hydrated during this time. This was me code-switching for my own mental and emotional health.

2. Versions of Myself.

One meeting we partnered with another organization where I had previously worked. In this organization I was encouraged to bring my authentic self to work – sharing ideas that were welcomed versus questioned as threatening, engaging and adding insights and energy to the dynamic and most importantly contributing value to the strategy. I recall my Vice President actually said to me: “You were very different in this meeting. You were happy, productive and engaging. You made positive contributions. How come we don’t get to see this version of Jefferson.” I wanted to tell him that this version of Jefferson, the authentic me, wasn’t welcome at this office. So instead I simply responded with a shrug. I have worked in numerous organizations where I had to code-switch and like many underrepresented people, I would eventually end up leaving.

3. Playing Up My Inner Queen.

I recall parking in a dead-end street one evening and there was a White woman walking her dog. We were the only two people there and she looked at me with fear in her eyes. Her little dog however came right up to me wagging her little tail. I believe this put her owner more at ease and she commented that her dog was such a princess who would almost never greet a stranger so warmly. I smiled and with a purposeful lisp I stated: “Well it takes a princess to know a queen.” The woman completely relaxed at that point as I code-switched to “dial up the stereotypical Gay.” I admit I did feel bad about resorting to a stereotype but then I thought about the dynamics between a Black Man and a White Woman alone in a dead-end street at night and realized it was instinctual for my survival.

I have had to code-switch most of my life for survival. I don’t even think about it anymore. It’s almost as instinctive as breathing for me. Recently, with this talk of authenticity I often question myself when I am doing it now. Sometimes I feel angry with myself about it because I am tired of adjusting my behaviour for the comfort of others yet I am expected to sit in discomfort when people are “casually racist” or “casually homophobic,” or other forms of xenophobia.

Earlier this year a reporter from the Globe and Mail reached out to me to discuss my experiences with code-switching in an article titled: “Why many racialized people feel they need to ‘code-switch’ in the workplace.”

Learn more about code-switching and other mechanisms that underrepresented people use to cope with oppressive workplace cultures in Breakfast Culture’s Ally is a Verb training course. We offer three versions: our Racism Edition focusses on white privilege, our Womyn’s Edition focusses on male privilege, and our Alphabet Soup Edition focusses on heterosexual privilege.

Let’s break some eggs!

The full Globe and Mail piece follows…

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