How code-switching hurts people of color in the workplace

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“You are acting in white.” This damaging statement is usually directed at people of color (POC) who hear it from co-workers, friends and family.

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

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

Code-switching is a common practice among POCs who are cultural minorities in some spaces. It is used as a survival tool to get ahead in business, life, and personal relationships. Although it has become common practice for many POCs, code switching is not trivial. 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 change code, how it hurts the POC, and some ways organizations can help eliminate the need to change code.

Why Color Code People Change

There are many reasons why people switch codes in their daily life. People could code-switch to advance professionally. A study showed that people downplayed their race if they were from a racial minority in order to get hired at companies. Others have code-switched in order to increase their chances of getting a promotion, being considered for a raise, or earning a high-level assignment once they’re employed.

POCs 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, such as African American Vernacular English (AAVE), in order to more closely resemble the mainstream culture. In fact, one study reported that 38% of Black Americans and 45% of Latinos felt judged for their language, accent, or dialect at work. Thus, code-switching helps ease the tension of being “other” in the workplace.

The code change may also include physical appearance changes. In particular, women with cultural hairstyles or headscarves may choose to wear their hair in a particular way to blend in with the mainstream culture. Black women have been shown to be 80% more likely to change their hairstyle to meet societal norms at work in an effort to be perceived as “more professional”.

All of these cultural adaptations can have serious consequences for the individual. POCs suffer mentally from always having to change the outward manifestations of their cultures to fit what they perceive to be the norms of their workplace.

Related: Companies don’t talk about black vernacular and dialectal biases 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 well-being in several ways. Research suggests that changing code to avoid stereotyping can affect job performance over time. This can make a POC feel like they aren’t as present or focused because they’re too busy trying to avoid negative judgments or repercussions on how they look or talk.

Constantly changing code has also been associated with feelings of burnout and exhaustion. Sometimes it can feel like the person is wearing a mask for eight hours a day, with no breaks or time to express authenticity.

One study has suggested that those labeled as “acting white” may suffer psychological damage later down the road. People of color labeled this way can often feel like they’re not black enough, Latino enough, Asian enough, etc. The effect is a long-term impostor syndrome where the person feels no sense of belonging to a group and may feel alone and excluded.

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

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

It all starts with cultivating a sense of belonging and putting diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) first. Companies with very little diversity and striving for 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 how their minority colleagues need to change who they are. They can practice a better covenant and become a support system that encourages a person of color to feel a sense of belonging as they embrace their authenticity.

Recruiters also have a role to play when it comes to promoting the IDE and limiting the effects of code-switching. Hiring managers can be careful to hire for cultural “add-ons”, not cultural fits. Cultural additions are people who add or contribute to culture by bringing a different background, experience, or perspective.

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

It is also important to increase the cultural competency of all employees through DEI programming. This may look like hiring a full-time in-house diversity manager or conducting a series of workshops and trainings with a diversity consultant to increase cultural competency and develop strategies that support diversity. membership, inclusion and safety of POC and minorities.

Related: 6 Ways to Offer an Alliance to Black Entrepreneurs

Final Thoughts

Code-switching isn’t just a problem for people of color, it’s an institutional issue that should be on leadership’s radar. Every time a color-coded person changes workplaces, 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’s actually an illusion that ignores and suppresses unique contributions. This results in less development and innovation in the long run.

Companies should strive to increase their cultural competence 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 to POCs, both short-term and long-term. Companies can benefit from encouraging authenticity and honesty in the workplace and rewarding those who bring their gifts while expressing their authentic identity.

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