"Use Your White Voice": Code-Switching at Work

What Is Code-Switching

The topic of code-switching is more prevalent than ever in recent years and has become conceptually associated with the African American community. Dictionally defined as the process of shifting from one linguistic code (a language or dialect) to another, depending on the social context or conversational setting, the term code-switching is generally coupled with mental images of Black Americans switching from speaking in a Black English dialect to a White “standard” English dialect. Why is this? Well, not only has code-switching been discussed in conversations on topical issues such as diversity, equity, and inclusion, but it has now been seen in mass media. One of the best examples of this was the 2018 film Sorry to Bother You, in which a young, Black telemarketer is encouraged by a peer to code-switch when speaking on the phone with White clientele as a sure way increase his over-the phone sales; resulting in the infamous line,

“If you want to make some money here, use your White voice.”

Although this was one of the most widely broadcasted examples of code-switching, the concept has been around for much longer within sociolinguistic and psychology research. In fact, some of the first examples of code-switching were observed within a rural, Norwegian community (Blom & Gumperz, 1972). While there, researchers found that code-switching can occur within the same or between conversations and can vary based on contextual factors such as conversation setting, participants, and the topic that is being discussed. Similarly, when applied to the United States, the same behavior phenomenon was observed within the African American community (Debose, 1992). African Americans openly discussed how they would use the same social cues when deciding whether to speak in a familiar Black English dialect, commonly known as AAVE, or to assimilate through code-switching by speaking in a White “standard” English dialect in settings where the racial majority is made up of White people. This was, and still is, used as a behavioral assimilation tool in the workplace to avoid discrimination or other harmful consequences faced not only by Black Americans, but other members of racial minority groups when speaking in a “non-standard” English dialect.


Manifestations

Although commonly defined that way, code-switching isn’t limited to speech. Broadly, code-switching has manifested into additional assimilation behaviors used by Black Americans as well members of other racial minority groups within American organizations. These behaviors often remove many aspects of one’s own ethnic cultural identity to assimilate to the dominant White culture and can include,

  1. Changing clothing worn/dress style

  2. Altering hair styling or texture to be more “Eurocentric”

  3. Using an “Americanized” name

Unfortunately, many see these actions as vital in order to “fit in” within American workplaces where White employees continue to make up the majority of the labor force, a whopping 78%. In fact, many Black women who resisted assimilation to the dominant workplace culture were aware that it stifled their professional relationships (Dickens, & Chavez, 2018).


The Effects of Code-Switching

Code-switching can have both positive and negative effects. Yes, it can result in professional gain, but at what cost? Individuals who have enacted code-switching behaviors have found outward success on many levels within the organization, from career advancement to increased social inclusion among White peers. However, this is not always the case; many have found that incessant code-switching while at work can have many damaging psychological impacts on employees such as increased career burnout, quicker depletion of cognitive resources, mental unhealth, creation of cognitive dissonance between one’s self and culture, and many others. It is not healthy, nor sustainable, for someone to constantly be presenting an inauthentic self while at work each day.

"This dilemma not only poses career and psychological risks for individuals, it also damages organizations, which may miss out on the distinct perspectives and contributions from racial minorities who are uncomfortable being themselves in the workplace."

How Can I Help?

There are many ways that not only organizational leaders, but everyone within a workplace can help alleviate the need to assimilate that is felt by racial minorities.

  1. Create an Inclusive Environment. This can be done at all levels of an organization. Leaders can review the current policies in place for company dress code and speech etiquette and remove any unnecessary language or rules that would prevent someone from being able to fully present their authentic self through their speech, dress, or hair style. As we have all found out over the last year and half – almost all work can be done in sweatpants, so unless there is a concern for safety or health a White “standard” of professionalism should not be required. Individually, you can make sure that you are expressing your true self through your speech, dress, or hair style to make others, especially members of minoritized groups, feel more comfortable doing it themselves.

  2. See How You Are Doing. Look inward and examine yourself to see if you are truly presenting your own authentic self at work or if you carry biases toward others who may - if so, then you may be a part of the problem. However, it is not your fault, for generations American workers have rarely challenged many aspects of the White culture that dominate American workplaces and only recently have begun to challenge it. You can defy the status quo by presenting your genuine self at work and actively embolden others to do the same and embrace the differences that may arise.

  3. Increase Diversity/Bias Reduction Trainings. Although individual employees rarely have the authority to lead trainings, they can encourage organizational leaders to increase the amount of diversity or bias reduction trainings that are offered. This is a great way to reprogram our brains into realizing what we may have been subconsciously taught to fear or dislike while also bringing attention to how we may be enacting damage to others based on our own personal biases/actions. Organizations and their members should embrace the differences between employee perspectives because the differences are what make them stronger.

 

Sarah Jackson, M.S. is an IO & DEI consulting assistant at Mattingly Solutions and also a PhD candidate at Florida International University. Learn more about and connect with her here.