A Discussion About Code Switching

In honor of mental health awareness month, I wanted to touch on a subject that effects many but is not discussed enough… Code Switching

What is Code-Switching?

The adjustment of one’s style of speech, appearance, behavior, and expression in ways that will optimize the comfort of others in exchange for fair treatment, quality service, and employment opportunities.

I’ve been code-switching as far back as I can remember. Hanging-out with neighborhood friends where slang & Ebonics were the norm then code-switch to my parents native language of Haitian-Creole when at home, being sure to operate according to our cultural customs & traditions. But the most intense code-switching I’ve ever experienced was in the 3rd grade when placed in gifted at a predominantly Caucasian school. That experience taught me that my authentic self wouldn’t be enough or accepted here. If I wanted to be taken seriously I’d have to change a lot of what made me, me in order to “adjust” when operating in this Eurocentric society.

Some might say when in Rome do as the Romans but code switching is deeper than that. It’s not about professionalism. It sends a message that who you are isn’t enough or “right.” Code-Switching says, To be hired/promoted/accepted, to “fit in” or be viewed as competent or less “threatening,” one must change who they are in order to be deemed socially acceptable and in some instances to save their life. 

There were often limited interactions with classmates, friends and family because at some point we would come to a dead end in our conversations as we approached topics neither of us wanted to discuss or cared to understand. 

My parents had a fairly simple plan for my life – go to school, get an education, earn a prestigious title where I made a lot of money and life would be okay…. 

But come back exactly as you left

For the most part, I did follow that plan. However, as I experienced life, I picked up a few new philosophies that didn’t quite align with the lifestyle my very strict and traditional Haitian heritage expected me to live as a woman.

I can remember brief moments of rebellion where I would just “do me” regardless of who was around. Playing my Simple Plan or Evanescence album loudly and proudly at home or rocking the latest in hip hop fashion at school. Both scenarios would immediately be followed by harsh criticism… 

Oreo, Weird, Ghetto

There seemed to be no safe place to just be me. The constant pressure and expectations were always too much. I felt lost and confused for decades. Eventually experiencing an identity crisis from the constant code-switching.

I remember holding back in class. Not giving my all. Too worried about others’ opinions or comparing myself to others and believing that I could never measure up. Sadly, those insecurities followed me into adulthood … more specifically college.

How does code-switching effect students?

What are the psychological effects of code-switching on students? How does it impact their performance and productivity? Especially for minority students who often times, unbeknownst to them, become a token or representative for their entire race?

Is there a drive to perform above and beyond the requirements in order to disprove stereotypes? Presence of heightened vigilance or feelings of being put under a magnifying glass?

PA school along with the day to day of adult life is chaotic enough but how much more difficult is it with the pressures to code-switch? 

Is there a correlation between the academic success of minority students and their ability to stay in character? 

Can students truly perform at their highest capabilities when simultaneously expected to show up as a diluted, false or alternate version of themselves?

More Importantly

What are the repercussions of showing up as one’s authentic self? 

As exhausting as it is, I feel safe in saying that code switching comes so naturally, most aren’t even aware that it’s happening. 

By the time I got to college I was in a different stage of life from most of my peers. A full grown adult with full grown adult responsibilities, but in the same age group as many of my classmates. More life experience yet still trying to figure out this mess called life. 

Adult life made Code-Switching harder to do. The more I forced myself to “adjust” the more exhausted I became. Until I decided that the cost of code switching for me was one that I could no longer afford. 

Even at the beginning of this blog I found myself code-switching in order to appeal to the masses. I’d even considered finding someone else to be the face while I remained completely in the background because I didn’t think my appearance would connect with my target audience.

Today I can truly say that I’m at a stage where I just can’t anymore. I just don’t care to anymore…. Code-Switch that is. It has taken up so much energy and has had a significant psychological and emotional impact.

But I wonder if that’s the answer. The answer to code-switchers no longer feeling the need to put on the masks that makes others feel more comfortable and/or less threatened by their existence.

What would happen if code-switchers just “did them” from the very beginning? How much further could we as a society be in healthcare, medicine, technology… life in general? How many contributions & perspectives are we missing out on because so many have yet to give themselves permission to be themselves comfortably at work/school?

Is code switching worth the costs of what is being lost?

I’ll end on this note

I don’t know the answer on how to fix this. However I do challenge each of us to be less judgmental while giving people space to express themselves without fear. 

I’m not fully sold on the idea of diversity and inclusion training. I don’t think there’s any amount of Power Points/mandatory lectures/trainings to change what’s in people’s hearts. 

I believe it’s up to each and everyone of us, especially the majority, to do some soul searching and self education. 

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