Career & Education / Money Management

The Cost Of Code-Switching For Black Women In The Workplace

By Monday, April 20, 2020

In 2016, I wrote an article for TFD entitled, “What It’s Like Being Literally The Only Black Person in Your 50-person Office“. In the piece, I talk through the obstacles that come along with paying a “Black Tax,” or having to work twice as hard just to be seen as good enough as my white peers in a corporate setting. Four years and three employers later, and I’ve found myself in that familiar space again. I am the only Black person in a 30-person office at my stylish company whose mission and ethos boast women empowerment and social responsibility on a global scale. (The irony is not lost on me.) And nearly half a decade later, I am still finding myself falling prey to the critical survival tactic known all too well by any person of color in corporate America. I am changing the pitch of my voice; I am smiling more than my cheeks can bear; I am wearing Blair Waldorf headbands; I am code-switching. 

But four years ago, I didn’t have the language or even some valuable life experiences to fully understand the idea of code-switching. I didn’t even know there was a name for what I was doing. And I certainly didn’t comprehend what it cost me emotionally, spiritually, and financially. 

In recent times, code-switching and covert cheat codes to nabbing a seat at the table have become a regular topic of conversation between myself and Black friends. We cover the spectrum of challenges, tips, and shame we face and experience. Together, we pore over how we can progress both ourselves and our community while not hiding part of ourselves and downplaying our community. And like many Black stories, I don’t believe the struggle of code-switching is told all too often. So I connected with some friends, and here are our experiences with code-switching.

What Is Code-Switching? 

Code-switching is a complex topic to unravel. If you were to look up the term in a dictionary, you’d discover this tool described as “the practice of alternating between two or more languages or varieties of language in conversation.” And if you were to ask a person of color, they would most likely get straight to the point. In essence, it’s the language, mannerisms, and body language we use when in the company of peers from a different class and/or race. My friend Kristin, a 30-something writer, pens it as, “Diluting Blackness when there is no one else Black around.” Because, if we were perceived as “threatening,” we could otherwise experience continued prejudice, false accusations, or have our seat further pulled away from the table. 

For example, some will change the affect of their voice, their posture, or refrain from using colloquialisms when speaking to someone they wouldn’t otherwise connect with outside of work. Personally, my mannerisms vary depending on who I am speaking with. I am a very emotive person, and I understand, albeit unfair at times, my body language can speak volumes over my carefully-chosen words in a meeting. When in the company of friends, I’m much freer with my wrist and neck movements. (I think it can add a comedic element to my storytelling, after all.) But at work, it is not by accident that I am conscious of clasping my hands and surrendering them to my lap. And when I’m listening to someone speak during a brainstorm or presentation, I remind myself it’s not enough to look at them and seem engaged. I have to maintain a level of warmth and approachability in my smile so that my resting bitch face isn’t masking me as the Angry Black Woman.

My friend Stacie, a 20-something marketing professional, recalls her first introduction to code-switching. “I never knew what code-switching was until I left my majority-Black neighborhood and headed to a predominately white private university 30 minutes down the road. It wasn’t until my first business major class that I felt small, not smart enough, and the need to change. My white classmates started using words that I didn’t use, seemed at ease when presenting, and seemed to speak the ‘proper’ way (a way that doesn’t actually exist). I thought that if I could be like them, surely I’d be accepted and deemed smart enough. That was my introduction to code-switching.” 

And though we all likely have an anecdote of feeling like an outsider and turning ourselves “on” to blend in, we rarely examine the finances and emotional trauma included. 

The Financial Cost of Code-Switching 

Some of the effects of code-switching are more covert, and their lasting impact doesn’t show itself until much later. And we’ll get to those. However, some results are much more concrete and indisputable, like the economic side effects.

Regardless of background, most professionals have found themselves needing to buy or borrow an outfit for an interview. Others may get their nails or eyelashes done. Before you can even tell the receptionist who you’re there to interview with, you’ve already paid double-digits to make a good impression. And Black women have another outward dilemma to solve: What the hell should we do with our hair?

I recently attended a professional Black women’s brunch, and the topic of “when do you start rocking your natural hair” came up. Many of us shared our timeline, and on average, we began wearing our natural hair no earlier than one month into a new job. I can only recall one situation where I wore my natural hair on the first day of a new job. And I only did so because when I was brought in for my on-site interview, I saw the women of color who were gainfully employed there were doing so. It signaled to me:, I can work here and look like myself. I am one month into my new job, and being the only Black person, I have yet to feel comfortable enough to do so. Candidly, I just don’t want the honeymoon phase to be crashed with a question like, “Oh my god – is that what your hair really looks like?” so soon. (And yes, I’ve gotten this question many times.) Perhaps I’m still harboring some past trauma; at a former employer, a senior director commented that he preferred my hair straight. He mansplained that it made me look more mature, sophisticated, and was a vehicle for me to be taken more seriously by board members.

Having to transform your hair with extensive heat, sewn-ins, perms, wigs, or relaxers can cost hundreds of dollars per month. One of my friends, Whitney, a 20-something working in recruiting shared, “Can we talk about all of the money we spend on clothes and shoes, makeup and hair (salon trips, weaves, etc)? Again, we use these agents to europeanize ourselves, to make us look ‘less threatening,’ less individual, giving a false sense of routine, and establishing the ability to blend in. Unfortunately for others, no matter how much we change our look, voice, approach, we’re still black and brown at the end of the day, and skin doesn’t come off.” 

In addition to hair, as Whitney pointed out, we give our wardrobe a considerable amount of thought. And sure, who doesn’t? But unlike most of my peers, our curves can be met with criticism. I’m guilty of exchanging a pair of slacks in the morning before work because the first pair hugged my hips in a way that might give a coworker agency to say I was looking “thicc.” (Again… yes, this has happened.) Who really wants to deal with that? Arguably, I feel a white girl and a Black girl could take on a trend, say stiletto nails, and experience two different reactions. On the first girl, it could be deemed as fashion-forward and a “hot look.” On the second, alternative demeaning adjectives would be used, “unprofessional,” being one of the kinder words. 

In fact, my friend Stacie went on to share, “Fast forward to working at a global crisis communications firm, I found myself code-switching again. Not only changing the way I speak but also look. I’ve never been the girl that enjoys shopping. I actually dislike it most of the time. But here I was at an outlet near my apartment visiting high-end stores because I have to look really professional. I have to look like them. In the past two years, I have spent hundreds of dollars on work clothes…clothes that I would otherwise never wear. Sure, there’s a thin line of buying clothes to abide by a job’s dress code, but that’s not what I was doing. I was dressing for a part. I was trying to fit in with my socio-economically privileged colleagues and didn’t want to look cheap. Most of them come from upper middle class, privileged backgrounds. Recently, I’ve just stopped caring. I’ve quit buying new clothes, and I’m NOT wearing heels every day. My feet hurt, my head hurts, and my soul hurts. Either accept me as I am or not at all.”

Professor of Black American studies at the University of Delaware Tiffany M. Gill recently told Essence, “When braids are on black bodies, they are dangerous or subversive, but celebrated as fashion on white bodies.” Creativity and self-expression in appearance can feel like a privilege protected from us by the tight guardrails of what is expected, and what will make others more comfortable. And there is something cruelly poetic about buying a new wardrobe in hopes that you’re inconspicuous, or even invisible, to those around you.

The Emotional Cost of Code-Switching 

Like a trapeze acrobat, the performance of code-switching demands risk, physical manipulation, and the understanding that your success, at times, is in someone else’s hands. 

I often battle the idea of code-switching, and if it’s a loaded, unwinnable ultimatum that begs us to “sell-out or get out.” It’s an internal debate that I have yet to find a verdict. I feel most triumphant and honest when I have been able to advocate for my community and push our ideas at the “table.” At my last employer, I founded our People of Color employee resource group. I challenged our team to reexamine our recruiting strategy and strip away job requirements most favorable to affluent families and men. However, I would be fronting if I didn’t acknowledge I was given the empowerment to lead diversity and inclusion efforts as a result of being the “smart, spunky, ~* bUt sTiLl fRieNdlY *~ Black girl”, first, to leadership. 

So, I was curious to know how my friends have handled this idea:

Kristin offered, “I have been fortunate to work with all black women for the last few months. I have no pressure to be anything but who and what I am, which is incredibly liberating. But will I be different now in white situations? Maybe. Probably. I was asked to give the commencement address at my very white private high school this year. Will I be able to speak the same way I can at work in the comfort of all Black women? Of course not. But I don’t necessarily consider that a bad thing. It may only be bad if you lose yourself. But maybe it’s “bad” all the time. Should we have to do it? No. Are we looked at negatively if we can’t do it? Yes. By both sides. I have conflicting feelings, but I also see it as an ‘insider’ thing that I am grateful to be on the right side of. I am glad I can do it, as I don’t necessarily want to be in one mode or the other all the time. But maybe that’s the white patriarchal conditioning talking. I really don’t f*cking know.”

Another friend, Briana, a twenty-something working in public relations lamented, “I think as Black women, we are trained at an early age to code-switch. It becomes a formality, especially when we are in a work environment. We may sometimes feel the pressure to show that we are educated so that we won’t fit the stereotype of how most Black women are often perceived. That pressure can sometimes be frustrating in the work environment because you’re dealing with people from many different backgrounds. Some people may not have ever interacted with Black women in a professional setting. Sometimes their only perception of Black women is how we are often portrayed on television. I personally don’t feel ‘pressure’ to code-switch, mainly because I am comfortable with myself, and I know that I am well-spoken and educated. Self-confidence can definitely take time. Once I realized that I didn’t need to fit in with the masses, that pressure was relieved.”

Whitney has come to the following conclusion: “I am who I am. The most helpful tool is being authentically myself in the interview process. With this practice, there is no facade – yes, I’m putting my best foot forward, but it’s my foot. Also, I think it’s important to mention the difference between professionalism and levels of comfort. Obviously, you wouldn’t activate your home level of comfort at work. Still, there should be a level of comfort you feel that works in tandem with your professionalism. [This] exudes a confidence and sense of belonging, allowing you to unapologetically exist in the workplace, and this takes time.”

And to echo Stacie once more, “Recently, I’ve just stopped caring. My feet hurt, my head hurts, and my soul hurts. Either accept me as I am or not at all.”

Jazmine Reed-Clark is a true crime and self-improvement junkie working in HR, and a millennial who (finally) knows the difference between a stock and a bond. She thinks. 

Image via Pexels

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