DETROIT – Code-switching is defined as the ability to switch between languages in a single conversation.
For example, you may speak more casually at home than you do at work. But for Black people, code-switching is far more complex and can often be taxing.
Myles Durkee is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Michigan and has done extensive research on racial code-switching.
“As soon as we hear someone speak, our minds automatically make associations about where they’re from geographically. We also make assumptions about their education level, their income level and maybe whether or not they’re a good person or not simply based on their style of speech,” Durkee said.
When a Black person cannot effectively code-switch, the result can be damaging. The star witness in the 2013 George Zimmerman trial, Rachael Jeantel, was on the phone with Trayvon Martin moments before he was killed. When she spoke in court, the 19-year-old’s testimony was largely being judged on her mannerisms and style of speaking. Ultimately, George Zimmerman walked free.
“Interacting with police is a clear example where code-switching can be the difference between life or death. If simply by code-switching of an officer already perceives a Black male as threatening, code-switching is an extremely effective way to alleviate some of that anxiety,” Durkee said.
Code-switching is not just in the way a person speaks. It can also involve your entire behavioral profile from hairstyles, to clothing and how you carry yourself. Former President Barack Obama’s ability to code-switch has been well-documented.
“When he was meeting the Dream Team and NBA players, the players and the coaching staff, you can see his handshake differs simply based on the race of who he’s greeting,” Durkee said. “With White individuals and coaching staff, it’s a very standard American handshake. But when it’s a Black player on the team, he’s dapping it up with the players.”
For many Black people, constantly focusing on changing themselves to make White people feel comfortable can be exhausting and unhealthy.
“We actually find in our data with Black professionals that those who tend to code-switch more frequently, also report significantly more workplace fatigue and burnout from their current positions. Simply, because they have to be a different person and mask all the cultural assets that they probably value and appreciate internally. But they realize that those same traits aren’t valued in their workplace. So they have to bring a completely different person to the workplace and basically keep that personality on throughout the workday. That can just be draining and likely will lead to mental health consequences,” Durkee said.
While it can be exhausting, Dr. Omari W. Keeles, assistant director for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Northwestern University, said he wouldn’t call it inauthentic because it is a huge part of the Black American experience.
“It’s one of those things where I don’t see it as a burden anymore. I just see it as something that is part of who I am, a part of how I navigate this world,” Keeles said.
Shanice Battle is a doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. She said she didn’t always know what it was called but she first noticed code-switching at a very young age.
“I just thought it was a part of being an adult, not like this thing that was specific to my race and sometimes even specific to my gender,” Battle said.
Durkee said that when it comes to code-switching in the workplace, leadership needs to recognize that it’s happening.
“You need to get that diversity in the business organization itself but that can only go so far,” he said. “We also need representation all the way up the hierarchical ladder of leadership in the organization as well where individuals from underrepresented backgrounds can start to have a voice to start to dictate what that corporate culture looks like.”
Cultural invalidations and racial code-switching: What are the psychological implications?
Click here or watch via the embedded video below to view a presentation that “examines how cultural invalidations and racial code-switching are associated with ethnic-racial identity development, mental health, and occupational outcomes among people of color.”
Watch the presentation below: