The Costs of Code-switching
At this point in my career, code-switching feels natural. I am not even cognizant that I do it anymore. —30-year-old black male researcher
In 2012, a video of President Barack Obama entering the locker room of the U.S. men’s Olympic basketball team went viral. In the clip, viewers can see that there’s a clear difference between how Obama greets a white assistant coach and how he greets the black NBA player Kevin Durant. This moment inspired a sketch on Key & Peele in 2014 that played off the idea that Obama “switches” how he greets people, depending on whether they’re white or black.
This kind of behavioral adjustment is casually referred to as “code-switching,” which has long been a strategy for black people to successfully navigate interracial interactions and has large implications for their well-being, economic advancement, and even physical survival.
Broadly, code-switching involves adjusting 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. Research suggests that code-switching often occurs in spaces where negative stereotypes of black people run counter to what are considered “appropriate” behaviors and norms for a specific environment. For example, research conducted in schools suggests that black students selectively code-switch between standard English in the classroom and African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) with their peers, which elevates their social standing with each intended audience. We also see examples of guidelines encouraging black people to code-switch to survive police interactions, such as “acting polite and respectful when stopped” and “avoiding running even if you are afraid.”
Based on our research and the work of others, we argue that code-switching is one of the key dilemmas that black employees face around race at work. While it is frequently seen as crucial for professional advancement, code-switching often comes at a great psychological cost. If leaders are truly seeking to promote inclusion and address social inequality, they must begin by understanding why a segment of their workforce believes that they cannot truly be themselves in the office. Then they should address what everyone at the company needs to do to change this.
Read the full article at Harvard Business Review.