To Code Switch or Not? Locals, Experts Discuss Code-Switching While Navigating White Spaces

Many of us do it without thinking when we’re at work.

 

Speaking on the phone with others outside of our community or in different professional elements where a more “buttoned-up” version of ourselves shows up to work or elsewhere.

 

Code-switching. According to the dictionary, it is the practice of alternating between two or more languages (or dialects) in conversation.

 

But then we’re off the clock. We snap back and ease up when hanging with our people, our family, our friends. Mauve over a good meal — relaxed and at ease, we let the easy conversation flow from our lips, and, if a good song comes on, it resonates in our hips with ingrained movements that we all know too well from seeing our kinfolk dance, talk and move. Or even seeing how the generations before us get down. And then when it’s back to the grind we may, or may not, code-switch again depending on circumstance and situation.

 

Since the pandemic, in the comfort of our own homes, and often behind a computer screen (sometimes cameras turned off) how do Black people show up to work? Why do some code-switch? Some locals and experts share their why — or why not.

 

Steven Chisholm, councilperson for the City of Inkster and the director of Constituent Services for State Rep. Jewell Jones, said that code-switching means to him the art of communicating with both your culture and others given the environment or circumstances at hand.

 

“I believe I code-switch quite often. The environment in which I function changes quite frequently. I go from communicating with the upper echelon to some of the most impoverished at any given time,” he told The Michigan Chronicle. “Whether it’s over the telephone or in person, I have to be able to adapt in an effort to communicate with them and quite frankly make them feel comfortable.”

 

He added that he sees Black professionals using it as a means to be well-rounded.

 

“At least I do. Some of my peers may detest it, but this is where we are. I can’t sit at a table with a CEO and find myself using the same five words. I have to be able to think and articulate the needs of my constituents in a way that is understood while being concise and professional,” he said.

 

Chisholm, who works from both home and in the office, has done an age-old practice that many Black people, and people of color, in America have done for centuries. Though sociolinguist Einar Haugen coined the term in 1954, it has been a thing since the times of slavery — and for survival — historians note.

 

According to an article on code-switching in www.yesmagazine.org, the practice gained more momentum in the 1970s in Black spaces in academia and elsewhere.

 

W.E.B. Dubois, a world-famous scholar, leader, civil rights champion and sociologist, mentioned in so many words the idea of code-switching over 100 years ago when he wrote about the two identities of Black people: Blackness and Americanness in his book, “The Souls of Black Folk.”

 

His book described how “it’s a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

 

Ashanti Bland, Southfield Public Schools’ Board of Education treasurer, said that she too code switches when she finds herself in more professional environments to adapt her communication style and/or vernacular and “use of cultural slang to best fit the tone of the discussion and my audience.”

 

“Quite frankly I’ve seen many professionals both POC (people of color) and non-POC, men, women and CEOs alike adapt their speech and communication styles based on their environment,” she said, adding that before COVID-19 she worked in an automotive manufacturing plant. The building was divided into two sections; one section of the plant floor consisted mainly of hourly union workers (mostly Black employees) who did various jobs on the line.

 

“The plant floor has a more relaxed culture. In turn, I spoke louder and my annunciation was more relaxed,” she said. “I was more comfortable making cultural references and would call women on the line, ‘Sis,’ or men, ‘Brother.’”

She added that the corporate area of the building was much more reserved, quiet and “professional.”

 

“In meetings with team members from the corporate side I tended to speak with a more monotone inflection, using less slang, and perhaps the annunciation of my words was more defined and clear,” she said, adding that she didn’t feel that she was protecting her core self but displaying a level of communicative diversity and adaptability. “It is a skill that many members of the workforce are lacking.”

 

Harold Love of Harold J. Love & Associates, a behavioral health service for public safety professionals in Southfield, said that he does not typically code switch.

 

“I make a point of being me consistently with whomever I am interacting,” he said adding that he primarily works in his private mental healthcare practice. “However, I also sit on several professional boards. I do not find it necessary to code switch in any of my professional settings.”

 

Love said that when he worked as a Michigan state trooper, he recalled situations where he engaged in code-switching, although he did not call it that.

 

“I found it beneficial when resolving conflict or gaining control of a chaotic situation,” he said. “Letting a person know that you ‘see’ her by mirroring what she says is a critical component in resolving conflict or gaining compliance.”

 

Freda Sampson, diversity equity and inclusion strategist and consultant at several organizations including the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity & Inclusion, is a Detroiter by way of Louisville, Ky. Sampson, who calls herself “a woman of a certain age,” has lived here since she was 10 when her pastor father migrated the family up north.

 

She said that since she has been primarily working virtually, but still in the corporate space, she finds herself more relaxed in her environment and lets her speech flow in and out, code-switching at times.

 

“The code-switching is not done intentionally most of the time,” she said. “I don’t say to myself, ‘I need to use this language, insert here.’ I read the room.”

 

She added that if she so chooses, she will drop some knowledge on people who witnessed her more relaxed speech and let them in on her culture and provide them with context to what she might have said when she wasn’t code-switching.

 

“The few times I have done it I have called myself out on it … and I find myself at that moment,” she said. “And if I’m in the mood I might say what the intent of what I was saying was.”

 

Whether a person wants to code switch or not, it is still essential for Black people to show up in the world a certain way, seemingly, in different spaces they are in, Kalani Ture, a senior fellow at Yale University’s Urban Ethnography Project and assistant professor of criminal justice in anthropology at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, said. He said that people code switch in white spaces to have a seat at the table.

 

Ture also said that a Black person is the ultimate code-switcher if they take what they’ve gained in the white spaces and other non-dominate Black spaces and bring that back to their communities.

 

“I am socialized as part of my Black experience to learn the dance and it is a testament to those who learn,” he said, adding that, similarly to Dubois, code-switching is done out of necessity. “There are layers to this.”

 

“Particularly Black people who have often been discriminated against [are] the last to be hired, the first to be fired,” he said, adding that code-switching is symbolic capital in how Black people speak, gesture, dress and more. “We use everything in order to project a certain degree of comfort … in order to navigate that white space. We project our victories when in fact we’re enduring assaults and defeats and it’s wearing on us.”

 

Whether you code switch or not, this cultural phenomenon is still heavily practiced in Black communities, and with inequities and inequalities rampant throughout the boardroom to the break room, it can be easy to see why Black people still switch it up.

 

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