As a 13-year-old, it was hard for me to understand why my mother insisted that I cut off my baby dreads or that I get rid of any oversized jeans that imperceptibly sagged. Dating back to my adolescence, my parents instilled in me this notion that, as a black man, I had to carry myself a certain way if I wanted to be successful. Even more imperative than what I wore or how I looked, I distinctly remember a conversation with my father where he explained that I would have to work “ten times harder” than the other kids at my predominantly white high school to get by, simply because of the color of my skin.
My parents didn’t say these things because they felt I was a bad kid or that I would get in trouble. In fact, they thought that I was a great kid, but through their lived experiences, they felt that certain societal biases could negatively affect my future based on my “perception”. Whether true or not, conversations like these, as well as similar ones throughout my career, have driven me to develop a subtle vail used to hide parts of my personality in professional settings.
What is Code-Switching?
A recent conversation with a colleague made me reflect on how I’ve chosen to express myself in professional environments over the last few years. Today, as I reminisce about the last few years working in tech, I realize that I’ve subconsciously suppressed my true expression in order to fit into the work environment that I was entrenched in at the time. Most of my career, I’ve been the only black person on my product team, and even at times, the only black person in the entire technology department. If I really think back on it, there were many instances throughout high school and college where I changed my tone or demeanor depending on the group that I was around at the time. This change in behavior is a phenomenon we generally refer to as code-switching.
According to a recent Pew Research Center study, four-in-ten black adults feel the need to change the way they talk when they’re around people of different races. That number increases to about 50% when you factor in black adults with a college degree. The data shows that black people generally feel the need to code-switch more than their counterparts of other races, but that seems to counter the mantras of today’s modern tech company that champion’s diversity and pushes somewhat of an outsider agenda.
Can Tech Companies Alleviate the Urge to Code-Switch?
After more than a decade in the workforce, this year was the first time I worked for a company that had a true black history month celebration. This is also the first time that I’ve worked for a company with a black & brown Employee Resource Group (ERG), or any ERG for that matter. Unsurprisingly, this year I’ve become more cognizant about my urge to code-switch around colleagues and my consistent imposter syndrome (a story for another day). Many companies say they care about diversity and inclusivity, but they haven’t determined how to alleviate things like imposter syndrome or code-switching, which seem to more often plague black employees. It’s clear that companies can take tangible steps to help their employees feel more comfortable in their own skin if they care about diversity, equity, and inclusion.
What are the Next Steps?
Work cultures that champion freedom of expression, lax dress codes, and employee resource groups should have a better shot at reducing some of the burdens that employees feel when they decide to code-switch. One way to mitigate the stress of these psychological patterns is to first acknowledge that they may affect certain employee groups (underrepresented minorities) more than others. Most importantly, companies that take a proactive approach in talking about these issues will help secure employee trust.
Employee Resource Groups also provide a great way for employees to express their feelings about code-switching. However, rather than keep conversations about race siloed to specific groups, it’s important for companies to take a more holistic approach. Sponsor company level events that allow ERG members to express their concerns and share their experiences. Bring in outside resources to help educate all employees on code-switching, imposter syndrome, and other psychological patterns that tend to affect underrepresented groups more than others. And most importantly, foster healthy conversations with your employees by promoting an open work environment.
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