My Journey As a Black Woman to Stop Code-Switching

I’m a Black woman. And like many Black women, I’ve engaged in code-switching, which entails alternating between two or more languages or cultures when interacting with people. Also like many Black women, I’ve had to do this to survive. 

While I have abandoned code-switching years ago, it was a journey to get to a point where I no longer had to monitor and adjust my behavior in ways that covered up my authenticity. 

Code-Switching From an Early Age

From kindergarten through senior year of high school, I realized that there was definitely a race and class division in my schoolmates. I was born in the South before moving west where I started elementary school in San Jose, Calif., and discovered firsthand about differences, mostly in language.

For instance, there was language I used at home that wasn’t understood at school. I remember asking my first-grade teacher to “plat” my hair because my braid had become loose. She didn’t understand what I meant until I showed her my other braided ponytail. 

Meanwhile, Black schoolmates and relatives called me out for “talking white.” This really threw me because I just thought I was talking “well,” not “talking white.” Still, the insult didn’t shake me; I merely found it interesting. Even so, this is when I started to use slang in an effort to blend in. I began changing the language I used at school versus the language I used at home. The way I talked with my friends at school away from my parents was different. In other words, I learned to code-switch during my formative years.

Code-Switching As a Professional

My first job was as a summer intern at IBM. I felt like I really stuck out being one of the few people of color. Subsequently, as a professional, I had to learn how to operate in the dominant culture — the White culture. I found few Blacks, if any, in most of the places I worked.

Eventually, I took a course on public speaking with a focus on authenticity and transparency. It emphasized that we all have something unique in our presentation styles, something to share and contribute that belongs only to us.

I began to find my voice as a speaker and in my overall work style because of that one course. And I made the decision then to just be me. I decided to bring all of me to the table and stop code-switching. It was so liberating. I found ways to express myself as a Black woman, offering my unique experiences and style for the benefit of all without conveying “angry Black woman.”

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But it wasn’t just that. I like to wear my hair in braids, but my braided hairstyles were controversial early in my career. As a hotel personnel director I learned that a hotel professional had been fired from her job because her braids were considered an inappropriate hair style. That kept me from wearing my hair in braids while working there and for many years — and so I felt the need to code-switch to keep my job.

After a period of time, though, my hair was less of an issue — though only because I gained enough credibility within my work. But it shouldn’t have to be this way.

The Importance of Inclusion

Ultimately, it all comes down to the environment you create for your people. In some workplaces, I felt more enabled to be me from Day One without feeling the need to code-switch and “fit in.” The companies I thrived in were those in which I could be myself. Furthermore, with guidance from amazing Black professional mentors, I designed my work and career as I went. If I couldn’t bring my authentic self to work, it wasn’t the place for me —  whether I code-switched organically or deliberately, it created a stress in my life that I didn’t need.

Companies need to create inclusive environments where people can contribute as their authentic selves. They need to step up and ensure that no one has to code-switch in any situation. Accepting all employees for their best selves will ensure that everyone brings their best contributions to the workplace.


Interested in learning more about code-switching, particularly as it relates to the hiring process? ERE Digital 2.0, on Oct 20 – 21, will feature a presentation by Madison Butler, VP of people and culture at Sourced Craft Cocktails, called “The Big Cover-Up: Helping Candidates Reveal Rather Than Conceal Their Best Selves.” Use code EREDIGI20EXTRA10 to receive 10% off your ticket price by registering here.

Stephanie Wemusa has a Master’s in organizational development and has been an HR/TA practitioner for many companies spanning many industries. She has also been teaching for 14 years, currently at San Jose State University in the engineering and business departments, and at UCSC Extension. Connect with her at @TalVistaHR.

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