Code switching is something most people do even if they don’t know what it’s called. Simply put, code switching occurs when someone changes something about herself, whether temporarily, permanently, or for a particular situation, in order to be more appealing to people who have power or in situations where they think it would be more advantageous to have more in common with the other people in the room, organization, or situation.
What’s more is that code switching occurs most often when an individual is obviously different from the majority of people around him or her. For example, ethnic and racial minorities in predominantly white settings often choose to behave in a manner that they think makes white people more comfortable or accepting of them. Basically, the objective is to minimize attention given to the obvious differences between the minority or less powerful person and the others. Often, code switching is achieved by changing one’s tone of voice, pitch and volume of laughter, and more deliberate word choice when speaking. It could also include adjusting one’s clothing and hairstyles and intentionally behaving in ways that you think would result in greater acceptance. Overall, code switching can take many forms; but the objective never changes. It is about reducing apparent differences to make oneself more likely to be accepted.
The issue, at least in the minds of some, is that code-switching is rarely a two-way street. Because the culture of this country largely enables whites to choose when they want to engage people of color, many people argue that whites don’t have to do it. To support their perspectives, they make statements like the following, “While people of color can try to minimize their contacts with whites, they are limited in this ability due to disparities in the distribution of wealth. How many African-Americans or Latinas can choose to bank only with institutions owned and operated by minorities?” Second, ours is a culture that normalizes whiteness, middle-class whiteness, to be more specific. Ultimately, if yours is a behavior or a style that won’t fly for this group, it is probably rejected…and if you’re a person of color, you might be tempted to switch it up to fit it.
Stay tuned for Code Switching, Part II!