Last year, countless brands, businesses, and organizations publicly made pledges, promises, and action plans to address the lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workforce. As a Black woman, the idea of big names and giant corporations putting real effort into bringing more Black talent into their ranks is exciting—but it made me nervous. Simply because most work environments perpetuate and uphold white experiences as the driving force behind their structure, culture, and operations, and for many people of color, that means code-switching to adapt.
Growing up in a Black household and community, code-switching is something that I learned and observed from a very young age. It was called many different things including “fitting in,” “acting professional,” and “talking white.” But it all meant the same thing: presenting a different version of yourself in order to assimilate into a dominant culture. For many people of color who are constantly operating in white spaces, it’s second nature. And because we’re so good at it, it often goes unnoticed by CEOs, HR staff, colleagues, and supervisors.
It’s critical that the executives who are going on Black hiring sprees as a result of last year’s Black Lives Matter movement understand what’s at stake for their bottom line if they foster an environment where people of color feel like they need to code-switch to be accepted, respected, seen and heard.
Code-switching splits focus
There is a finite amount of time and energy that we each have to get us through the day. Even Beyonce has the same 24 hours. But when you’re constantly second-guessing yourself from the second you wake up about what to wear, how to style your hair, or how to speak, your resources deplete quickly. People of color are working under extreme pressure to perform at a higher level because of the stereotypes that paint them as lazy and less than, and they’re doing so while enduring higher levels of burnout and overexertion due to the stress and anxiety associated with being Black in white spaces. Calling this cycle exhausting would be an understatement, and the continuation of such behaviors ultimately contributes to a constant state of disenfranchisement for people of color in “professional” spaces.
The lesson here is that if you are perpetuating an office culture that does not enable self-expression and acceptance, good luck raising those diversity numbers and the sense of community among those you employ. You are not truly committed to a diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplace.
Code-switching creates echo chambers
I’ve never quite understood the benefit of an office made up of people who dress, speak and look the same. I’m sure business owners who are obsessed with this level of uniformity tell clients and associates that there is some sort of magical benefit that comes from consistency and sameness but in my experience, a lack of diversity leads directly to a lack of innovation.
The diverse experiences of people of color can enrich ideas and inform new perspectives and approaches to projects and processes, but, unfortunately, code-switching often prevents them from being shared. One of the more adverse realities of code-switching is that it goes beyond altering your appearance to fit in and, often, leads to an unwillingness to push back on ideas or disagree with the majority. When constructive criticism and healthy debate disappear from a workplace, the echo chamber that’s created ultimately leads to stasis, complacency, and a lack of creativity, which, in my opinion, is a business owner’s worst nightmare.
Executives: if you are enabling code-switching, you are, indeed, enabling a culture of yes-people. That is not only bad for business but destructive to your bottom line.
Code-switching prevents growth
Of the extensive negative impacts that code-switching has on individuals and businesses, one of the worst offenses is that it creates a cycle that’s incredibly difficult to break. Your identity and the way you express yourself go hand-in-hand with self-discovery. When those things are limited and you’re forced to place yourself in a neat, clean, digestible box, opportunities for growth and evolution are stripped away.
For people of color, this can lead to a slower ascent up the corporate ladder and/or an overwhelming sense of frustration that leads to talented and capable individuals quitting their jobs. However, if their next job has the same problems and limitations as the last one, then they have landed back at square one.
This cycle presents two problems. One, toxic behaviors and environments that enable code-switching in offices and workplaces result in fewer people of color occupying “professional” spaces—especially in leadership positions. And second, executives and those in HR are none the wiser. With that, neither the individual nor the business has the opportunity to grow, and that leaves us where? Stuck.
For people of color, code-switching is a self-defense response rooted in the need to feel safe and protected. But I’ve learned from my own personal journey that there is boundless freedom in understanding that your value isn’t derived from what you look like, but how you perform and what you’re capable of accomplishing. And the cherry on top is when that’s validated by your employer and peers.
But executives must first step up and understand the shortcomings of their work environments and culture, which begins with transparency and education. Deep, uncomfortable conversations and training are necessary, and empathy and understanding are non-negotiables if the goal is to create and sustain a diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplace. Periodt.
Breaking cycles is difficult, but I remain hopeful in humanity as change is the only constant. And, until we’re all on board and embrace this level of acceptance and care for one another, I’ll continue to express myself in the manner that feels right as I am, who I am, and how I am.
Davita Galloway is the cofounder of Hue House.