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Code switching at work: ‘I just want to be consistently me’

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Code switching is a part of everyday life for most people. Between interacting with friends, family and strangers, demeaner and language change to match different situations. But for Black professionals, code switching feels like a mandate handed to them by a mostly white workforce.

Black professionals dress differently, talk differently, act differently — all in an effort to fit in, or at least not stand out. Brendon Howell, president of the Indianapolis chapter of the National Association of Black Accountants, called code switching a “survival tactic.”

“For us to fit in in a white man’s world, we need to code switch to speak like they do so they think we’re just as intelligent as they are,” Howell said.

Howell, who works at an accounting firm in Indianapolis, said Black professionals develop a “white voice” to move away from Black English (sometimes called African-American vernacular English or Ebonics), to make sure “we’re actually seen for what we’re there to offer.”

Faren Jones, donor relations coordinator at Child Advocates in Indianapolis, said code switching is an unfair burden for Black professionals and, like Howell, described it as a means of survival in workplaces dominated by whites. Jones said where she works now is more diverse than most other professional workplaces, which takes some of the pressure off. But for the average Black professional who feels like they’re stuck being an ingenuine version of themselves, Jones said refusing to code switch doesn’t necessarily make things easier.

“It’s exhausting at times,” she said, “but it would also be exhausting to be yourself because you’d have to explain cultural language.”

ZeNai Brooks, an accountant at a public firm in Indianapolis, said her code switching involves changing the way she talks, dresses and does her hair. She said it’s understood that the dominant white culture won’t allow big, natural hair or bright clothing.

“They paint a picture of how you’re supposed to look when you go to work,” Brooks said, “so you try to match that and not bring other parts of yourself to work.”

The changes are dramatic enough that it’s common for co-workers, according to Brooks, to not recognize her if they see her in public. This raises a dilemma for Black professionals who have to walk back and forth between cultural norms. Brooks said once a white person told her at a networking event that she wasn’t “one of them,” referring to other Black people.

“It’s almost like Black professionals that work at a corporate environment aren’t the same as other Black people,” Brooks said of the clash between Black and corporate cultures.

One way code switching is mandated for Black professionals is the expectation to act “professionally.” Brooks said she understands that to mean “acting white,” since the prototypical professional is a white man. Jones said she knows, as a Black woman, exactly what it means to act professionally.

“It’s to not interrupt people, to not disagree, to only speak when spoken to so you aren’t perceived as angry, to not question the status quo and just go along with it,” she said.

Howell, Jones and Brooks agreed code switching is usually not a conscious effort, and that’s because they learned from a young age how to do it and what purpose it serves. Jones said she attended majority-white schools as a kid and just learned how to fit in. She said she didn’t learn code switching was an actual thing until after graduate school. Howell and Brooks both learned from listening to their mothers talk on the phone with a “white voice.” Now, as professionals, they understand the pressure from coworkers to become a different version of themselves.

“I just want to be consistently me,” Brooks said, “and that’s not always easy to do.”


Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-62-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.

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