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How Code-Switching Hurts People of Color in the Workplace

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“You’re acting white.” This harmful statement is commonly directed toward people of color (POC) who hear it from their colleagues, friends and family.

“Acting white” is something that many people of color find themselves doing in order to survive a lack of diversity in the workplace. If the dominant culture is white, how else can the person get ahead in their career, connect with a colleague and make it in their industry?

This is also a form of code-switching. Code-switching, by definition, is when a person changes their language, dialect, behavior or appearance in order to fit into the dominant culture.

Code-switching is a common practice amongst POC who are cultural minorities in certain spaces. It’s used as a survival tool to get ahead in business, life and personal relationships. Although it’s become a common practice for many POC, code-switching isn’t harmless. In fact, there are negative psychological effects of code-switching that may not be obvious to managers, executives and others in a person of color’s life.

Here are some ways people code-switch, how it harms POC and some ways organizations can help eliminate the need for code-switching.

Why people of color code-switch

There are many reasons why people code-switch in their daily lives. People might code-switch for professional advancement. One study showed that people played down their race if they were a racial minority in order to get hired in corporate spaces. Others code-switched in order to increase their chances of getting a promotion, being considered for a raise or earning a high-profile assignment once they’re employed.

POC can often distance themselves from racial stereotypes in the workplace in order to be seen as leaders in the eyes of their colleagues. They may downplay their dialect, like African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), in order to sound more like the dominant culture. In fact, one study reported that 38% of Black Americans and 45% of Latinos felt judged for their language, accent or dialect in the workplace. Thus, code-switching helps alleviate the tension of being “othered” in the workplace.

Code-switching can also include changes to one’s physical appearance. In particular, women with cultural hairstyles or headscarves may choose to wear their hair in a particular way to blend in with the dominant culture. Black women have been shown to be 80% more likely to change their hairstyle to meet societal norms at work with the goal of being seen as “more professional.”

All of these cultural adaptations can have serious consequences for the individual. POC are mentally suffering from always having to change the outward manifestations of their cultures to adapt to what they perceive are the norms of their workplaces.

Related: Companies Aren’t Talking About Black Vernacular and Dialect Bias in The Workplace. Here’s Why That Needs to Change.

The psychological impacts of code-switching

Code-switching can affect a person’s mental state and wellbeing in more ways than one. Research suggests that code-switching to avoid stereotypes can affect work performance over time. This can look like a POC not being as present or focused because they’re too busy trying to avoid negative judgments or repercussions for how they look or speak.

Constantly code-switching has also been associated with feelings of burnout and exhaustion. At times, it can feel like the person is wearing a mask eight hours a day, without a break or time to express their authenticity.

One study suggested that those who are labeled as “acting white” may experience psychological damage later on down the road. People of color labeled in this way can often feel like they’re not Black enough, Latino enough, Asian enough and so on. The effect is a long-term imposter syndrome where the person doesn’t feel a sense of belonging in any group and can feel lonely and left out.

Overall, code-switching can worsen stress and feelings of anxiety, especially when the person is in a stressful situation or having to make difficult decisions. Constantly feeling pulled to be someone they’re not, hiding their authentic self, and trying to fit into a dominant culture can be toxic emotionally and mentally for POC.

So how can we make code-switching a thing of the past and encourage authenticity and humanity in the workplace?

Related: 4 Ways to Cultivate Inclusion and Compassion In the Workplace

Make code-switching a thing of the past with an inclusive workplace

It all starts with cultivating a sense of belonging and bringing diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) to the forefront. Companies with very little diversity and who struggle with inclusivity may feel comfortable with the dominant culture and view the struggles of minorities in the office as invisible.

However, individuals in the workplace can make a conscious decision to pay attention to the ways their minority colleagues are having to shift who they are. They can practice better allyship and become a support system that encourages a person of color to feel a sense of belonging when embracing their authenticity.

Hiring managers also have a role to play when it comes to promoting DEI and curbing the effects of code-switching. Hiring managers can be mindful of hiring for culture “adds,” not culture fits. Culture adds are people who add or contribute to the culture by bringing a different background, experience or perspective.

Hiring for culture fits ensures that the dominant culture stays the same, and this practice can often push those who are different to the margins and result in code-switching. Hiring for culture adds helps open the door to diverse representation and can bring more development, innovation and inclusivity to the workplace.

It’s also important to increase the cultural competency of all employees through DEI programming. This can look like hiring a full-time, in-house diversity officer or hosting a series of workshops and trainings with a diversity consultant to increase cultural competency and build strategies that support belonging, inclusion and safety for POC and minorities.

Related: 6 Ways to Offer Allyship to Black Entrepreneurs

Final thoughts

Code-switching isn’t just a problem for people of color, it’s an institutional problem that should be on the radar of leadership. Every time a person of color code switches in the workplace, the company loses a valuable opportunity to promote inclusion, authenticity and belonging.

While creating the appearance that everyone is the same is appealing to some, it is actually an illusion that ignores and suppresses unique contributions. This results in less development and innovation in the long run.

Companies should work to increase their cultural competency and learn to accept diverse dialects, behaviors and perspectives in order to advance the overall well-being and health of the organization and its employees.

Code-switching is a health hazard for POC, in the short and long term. Companies can benefit from encouraging authenticity and honesty in the workplace and rewarding those who contribute their gifts while also expressing their authentic selves.

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