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Fostering Inclusivity in Communication: The Hidden Reality of Code-Switching

Zoe Brown December 18, 2020

What started as a fishbowl conversation between two Oswald executives became a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiative to bring the organization closer together amid uncertainty brought on by the pandemic and social unrest. Common Ground is a small group intervention involving a series of conversations designed to equip Oswald Employee-Owners with tools to develop stronger connections with each other. One of the most critical aspects of the initiative consists of communicating in ways that foster inclusivity.

Women commonly face criticism in the workplace for having communication styles that are tentative, too emotional, or too polite. As women leaders, we need to know when our communication style becomes an asset or obstacle to inclusivity.

Many Black women (men, and other minority groups) face an additional challenge communicating in the workplace that perhaps falls unaware to others. Many of us “code-switch” to thrive in environments where we want to fit in.

“Well, what had happened was…”

As a precursor to a dramatic and exaggerated explanation, the phrase above, originated by the late comedian Richard Pryor has become a popular social media meme. I have said it many times to my black family and friends, but I don’t think I’ve ever said it to my white colleagues at work, at least not aloud. I save phrases like this for most of my conversations outside of work.

There are times when I code-switch. Unconsciously and sometimes consciously, I speak between a dialect representative of my black heritage and in a manner more acceptable in corporate America.

A Harvard Business Review article indicates “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.”

I first encountered prejudice at 15 years old, living in Darien, CT, as one of six minority students in a program called “A Better Chance.” When I spoke in class, my white peers made fun of me. I felt ashamed and unwilling to engage because of how I sounded to them. I was so upset about it, I decided to study Black English for my first big research paper. What I discovered was a book called Black English, by JL Dillard (1973) that freed from my shame and introduced me to Black English Vernacular (BEV) with its own set of grammatical rules.

Fast forward, as I began my career in training, I learned to code-switch consciously. When making critical points in standard English, if I felt my words needed a little extra emphasis and spice, I would switch to BEV, coining my alter ego in a professional setting, “Zoe from the Block.”

This part of my identity makes an appearance when I feel comfortable and at ease. But I’ve learned to be careful not to allow it to surface too often at work because it raises a few eyebrows, or so I think.

Beyond appearance, speech is another way we judge others and form impressions about them quickly. When we hear someone speaking with a southern drawl, do we perceive them as unintelligent? If someone has a foreign accent, do we trust them less than someone who speaks American English?

Language – word choice, meaning, dialect, grammar rules, non-verbal gestures, etc. are ingrained in culture. According to a Psychology Today article, “African American English continues to be a vehicle for culture and is important for cultural affiliation, identity, and self-expression.” Yet, if I choose to speak BEV in professional settings, I risk being labeled negatively.

Workplace research suggests that code-switching happens in environments “where negative stereotypes of black people run counter to what are considered ‘appropriate’ behaviors and norms for a specific environment.” It’s argued that code-switching is a racial challenge many black people face at work.

Not sounding “black” increases your chance of getting the job, being seen as a professional, and promoted into leadership. Additionally, code-switching, for many, has been a method of survival.

I wish this were not my hidden reality, and I wish I didn’t have to code-switch for these reasons and more.

  •  I don’t want to minimize myself.
  • I want to be accepted just as I am.
  • I don’t want to feel compelled to prove myself despite my age, years of experience, and education.
  • I don’t want to be judged by those within and outside of my racial identity group as “acting white” or “acting ghetto,” which unfortunately is a negative stereotype some associate with blackness.
  • I want to express myself freely and robustly. (Some sayings in Black English aptly describe what I mean, and sometimes finding a way to say it, so others outside of my culture understand can be difficult.)
  • All this back and forth, code-switching to fit in and belong can be exhausting.
  • I don’t want my speech to be a reason that I might die.

Code-switching is nothing new, lots of other cultural groups do it for different reasons. It’s the pressure to conform that can be stressful to me. As many organizations implement initiatives to promote inclusivity, like Oswald’s Common Ground, it’s an awareness we need to understand how bias affects us in different ways.

If the concept of code-switching is new to you, check out the sources I used in this post to learn more about a hidden reality that many blacks face. Hopefully, they will make you pause before you judge someone for speaking Black English Vernacular.

View more from the Women’s Leadership Blog Series.

About the Author:

Zoe BrownZoe Brown, MA, MEd, CPTM currently manages the training function for Oswald Companies in Cleveland, OH. She’s a blogger and certified Zumba instructor that aims to inspire women to find and do the things that bring them joy and confidence.