"Code Switching" Is Part of Our Daily Routines Without Us Realizing It

Screenshot via Refinery 29 IG Video
By Brenda Alexander

“I need to find something for my hair to lay my edges down before this TV interview tomorrow. I cannot be on camera with fuzzy edges,” I say to my aunt, who looked at me in shock before she proceeded to preach about my edges and camera time being unrelated. She then scolded me about what I felt was a need to appear "presentable," considering I donned faux locs, a hairstyle that many consider the opposite of societal norms. And, I never opt to tame my edges any other time. Surely, in her eyes, that was contradictory. To her, not only was my intelligence enough to handle the interview, but I was beautiful regardless of how rough I thought my edges looked.

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Even still, I felt edge control would help with my overall look….and make me more comfortable. So, I borrowed some of her gel and went on to slay the interview. I was even complimented on my hair by the talk show host who also praised my poise, knowledge of the topic, and over-all look. Unbeknownst to her just two hours before, I spent 20 minutes in a mirror manipulating my naturally coarse hair with gel, a toothbrush and silk scarf.

All of this was confirmation of what I already knew but had a hard time explaining to my aunt the day prior…..that I have to be a chameleon of sorts in certain environments to be seen and heard. I’ve come to understand that this is the art of code switching.

Code switching is defined as “the modifying of one's behavior, appearance, etc., to adapt to different sociocultural norms.” Although in this case, it was a combination of my appearance in conjunction with an expanded vocabulary and tone of voice, the further I go in my career, the more I am aware of that switch button. And after speaking to a few friends, they too were able to identify the times they were called to transform into a different version of themselves, and for various reasons.

We often think that code switching is for professional reasons only. We have an interview voice, a way in which we speak or act when we are at work and more. But it’s more expansive than that now. Take a look at how we present ourselves on all of social media profiles. I bet you that most people’s IG timelines are a lot different than their LinkedIn or Facebook posts. IG may be filled with bikini shots featuring henny in a red cup; while your FB and LinkedIn display your professional and familial accomplishments. And as ridiculous as it might sound, it’s necessary. There’s a time and a place for everything.

While our Caucasian friends don’t have to worry about how they are perceived in the same ways that we do, it’s imbedded in the black experience, a survival tool of sorts. We can’t be our free “black girl magic” selves to the tenth power laughing out loud, clapping our hands and rolling our necks at all times. I sometimes wish I could give a “yasssss girl” and a snap when my fellow sis kills a presentation at an-all staff meeting, but a collective clap with the rest of the team will do it justice. Wouldn’t it be nice to go off on a colleague in all capital letters with words bolded, italicized and underlined with some obscenities mixed in with a good gif or two when they send accusatory emails claiming you missed a deadline? But instead, you respond with the greatest professional black woman comeback via a “Per my previous email, the report was submitted in the time frame allotted. See email chain below” (that really irks them by the way).

Daniel, an NYC Publicist, who is half-Asian and half-Jamaican, explains that he uses code switching to his advantage.
“Being multi-racial and growing up in a predominantly white suburban community, I’ve been “code switching” my entire life. Now working in media and communications, I’ve learned it's a huge advantage in being able to relate and connect with anyone across any background. It works in our favor. It shows that we can adapt.”
And Daniel is right. We are the most adaptable across social, political, educational and employee circles. And we’ve been doing it since birth!

Kaneisha, a Programming Coordinator at Vice, agrees, saying:
“We are taught to code switch in order to not be seen as a threat in the eyes of white people and other non-black people of color. After a while you become so accustomed to it, that it’s second nature. If you walk into a room where you are the majority, there’s an almost instant adjustment on your posture, voice and gestures. We have to go above and beyond to “fit in."
What makes it all the more interesting is that other racial groups lack that skill, mainly because they haven’t had to apply it, but they should. Because if I have to hear one more “last night was fucking awesome” in a place of business from a non-black peer and no one deems that inappropriate, I’ll scream. And according to Dion, a Philadelphia Human Resources Manager, he’s over it too.
“It’s all about playing the field, more of a finesse. And when you get what you want, then the ball is in your court and joke’s on them. But my Caucasian counterparts do not abide by the same practices. My black friends and I are annoyed by general lack of professionalism or respect in public places, regardless of your skin color. But we aren’t given a pass.”
We aren’t complaining though, we actually joke about it. Just take this Refinery 29 video for example. So kudos to us for being able to thrive in all settings!


How often do you 'code switch?'
Brenda is a Philadelphia native with a love for Marketing, Creative writing, wine and Jesus. Her work has been featured on Mayvenn’s Real Beautiful blog and she is the co-author of the book Christmas 364: Be Merry and Bright Beyond Christmas Night (available for purchase on amazon). Follow her on IG @trulybrenda_ and trulybrenda.wordpress.com

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