For people of colour in the UK, certain spaces are more comfortable to exist in than others.
If you walk into a pub and you are the only person of colour in there, you might feel the need to make subtle adjustments to your behaviour and manner of speaking in order to be less conspicuous.
Code-switching is a survival technique, a tool to help someone seamlessly blend into different social and professional situations – particularly where you are a minority. It can be used consciously, or it can happen without even noticing that you’re doing it.
But, frequently code-switching can be mentally taxing. It can be exhausting and demoralising to feel as though you have to hide or adjust parts of who you are.
What is code-switching?
The term code-switching was originally created to refer specifically to linguistics – the way we speak.
In this sense, code-switching is where the speaker alternates between two or more languages, language varieties, or informal mixtures of language – all within a single conversation.
But language is just one element of the concept. The wider understanding of code-switching now includes any behaviour of adapting to fit a new set of rules – and that is not limited to speech.
For example, you would speak to a potential employer differently than you would to your best mate, you would shake their hand rather than high five, you might wear different clothes in their presence – there are different sets of social rules orchestrating these interactions.
People of colour feel the need to code-switch in more situations than white people because the unwritten rules of many social situations are dictated by white experiences.
Examples of code-switching
‘I definitely change how I act at work compared to when I’m with my friends.
‘I work in a predominantly white environment, and I’m very conscious of being perceived as overly loud or angry or argumentative. So I feel like I water my personality down, basically so people can’t say that I’m a “typical black woman” – whatever that means.
‘I’m quieter. It’s hard to pinpoint what about me is different… but I feel it.’
‘I act differently depending on which group of friends I’m with.
‘My uni friends are mostly white, and my home friends are mostly Asian. And we just have totally different dynamics. It’s not necessarily a racial thing all the time, but there are definitely certain jokes and conversations that I wouldn’t bring up with my white friends – I would think, “that’s too Asian, they won’t get it”.’
‘My mum laughs at me and says I have a “white voice” when I answer the phone. It’s a joke, but I know what she means. I do speak differently at work because everything is just easier if I act the same as my white colleagues.
‘It does make me sad that I have to do that though. It’s like I’m pretending to be somebody different.’
An American study last year found that black and Hispanic people are more likely than their white counterparts to say they ‘feel the need to change the way they express themselves when they are around people with different racial and ethnic backgrounds.’
‘Because dominant culture is white, whiteness has been baked into institutions as natural, normal and legitimate,’ explains Chandra D.L. Waring from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.
‘So there’s much more incentive for people of colour to code-switch,’ she writes in The Conversation. ‘To adapt to the dominant culture to improve their prospects.
‘White people rarely, if ever, feel this same pressure in their daily lives.’
What does code-switching look like?
Michelle Obama relayed her own experience of code-switching in her bestselling memoir, Becoming.
The former First Lady recalled ‘talking white’ to girls in her neighbourhood, and explained how code-switching became a feature of her career.
It doesn’t matter where you get to in the pecking order, for many people of colour, code-switching will be a persistent reality.
It could manifest as a black woman removing her braids or changing her natural hairstyle before starting a new job, choosing to eat sandwiches at lunchtime rather than bringing traditional food from home, or changing the tone and volume of your voice and using different slang terms.
Sometimes, code-switching can manifest as a feeling. A subtle and internal switch of outlook, or an attempt to see the world from the perspective of the majority.
But usually, code-switching is more than an abstract feeling – it is a performative form of self-censorship and the point is to make life a little bit easier.
An inability or reluctance to code-switch can lead to negative comments, discrimination and even overt punishment – as we have seen with black pupils excluded from schools for wearing traditional hairstyles.
Code-switching can also be seen in the way we treat others, and it can be life-saving.
A black doctor recently posted a thread on Twitter highlighting just how important it can be to have an awareness of when ethnic patients aren’t connecting with what the doctors are telling them.
Creating spaces that are genuinely accessible and welcoming for diverse groups of people is the best way to reduce the psychological impact of having to self-police your own behaviour.
And code-switching can only ever protect people of colour to a point.
Ultimately, no matter how meticulously you attempt to assimilate or emulate the behaviour of the majority – it doesn’t change your ‘otherness’ in the eyes of many.
So, while the ability to code-switch can be useful, it is a flimsy shield against systemic, institutional and personal racism. And the onus shouldn’t be on people of colour to develop strategies to counter this problem.
The State of Racism
This series is an in-depth look at racism in the UK in 2020.
We aim to look at how, where and why racist attitudes and biases impact people of colour from all walks of life.
It’s vital to improve the language we have to talk about racism and start the difficult conversations about inequality.
We want to hear from you – if you have a personal story or experience of racism that you would like to share get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org
Do you have a story to share? Get in touch by emailing MetroLifestyleTeam@Metro.co.uk.
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