The toll of code switching and the tyranny of culture fit

Two of my friends, who are both Black, recently had the following exchange on Facebook:

Person A: What’s the professional way to say “Y’all are crazy!” at work?
Person B: “Y’all are crazy.” I’m too tired to code switch in a pandemic.

It was one of the rare times that I’ve seen them talk publicly about that exhausting labor they do to change fundamental things about who they are—speech, appearance, mannerisms—to assimilate at work. This is exactly what makes code switching so insidious: If you are part of the dominate culture (as I am), you often don’t see the amount of code switching that underrepresented folks are doing, precisely because they are doing it for your benefit—to survive in a world that is inherently biased toward white standards.

Although many white people might not notice it, code switching is present in many interactions both big and small that people of color especially have, particularly at work. Think of a colleague changing their name to something that sounds more “white”, or easier for white people to pronounce, dress codes that deem natural hairstyles “unprofessional,” or the tone of voice that sales and customer service scripts are written in.

To understand the toll that code switching at work can take on people of color, as well as what steps managers can take to change a company culture that requires assimilation, I spoke to Dr. Courtney McCluney, assistant professor of organizational behavior at Cornell University. Dr. McCluney has extensively studied code switching, and works with companies to help analyze their culture and hiring practices to weed out bias.


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