From acting to dressing up for Halloween, individuals have donned a mask or altered their appearance in some way for a multitude of reasons. These actions are usually expected for the aforementioned occasions and the following day they go back to being themselves. However, what if the mask you wore in order to fit in has to remain on? What if you remain in a constant state of continuously removing and replacing the mask?
This predicament is a form of code-switching. The term code-switching according to Oxford Languages is “the practice of alternating between two or more languages or a variety of languages in conversation.” This definition connects to the earliest notion of code-switching coined by sociolinguist Einar Haugen in 1954. Haugen described code-switching as a mixing or alternating between two or more languages. For people of color this definition holds deeper meanings and implications. Associate Professor of Spanish Linguistics Bryan Koronkiewicz states, “Typically, the reason that code switching happens, particularly at the sort of register the style shifting variety level, has to do with community. It’s a way to establish or either create a sort of closeness.” Concepts such as community play a dual role in code-switching. These concepts establish connection and kinship amongst individuals.
These concepts like community go farther than interactions amongst individuals who resemble you. As reported in a 2019 research study in the Harvard Business Review, “The Cost of Code-Switching,” the act of code-switching by people of color, specifically Black people, is utilized as a tool for advancement professionally and socially. Climbing up the social or professional ladder requires an act of code-switching that rewards you for being a part of the majority. When people of color refrain from being themselves and partake in code-switching to assimilate to european standards, they are often viewed as more professional thus increasing chances of promotion. This perpetuates the cycle of covering certain parts of oneself to be more malleable and fit in.
Code-switching also persists in various levels of education. Being the only Black student in class and sticking out so starkly can evoke the impulse to want to blend in. This can cause students to alter their appearance, accent, or the way they speak to mask their true self and avoid prejudices or stereotypes.
As a means of protection and maintaining self-image, this mask remains intact when engaging with individuals of a different race. Koronkiewicz further explains, “Unfortunately, there is the stigmatization of certain speech styles and they’re not considered maybe professional or academic or all these other things based on these sort of issues of power connected with language.” Typically, individuals outside of a race create this stigma based on preconceived notions and inherent bias.
As previously mentioned, when code-switching is performed by people of color there can be results of assimilation and acceptance. Yet, at times when engaging with members of their own race or community they may be faced with accusations of “selling out”. This adds to the mental pressure of trying to be accepted by both sides.
Along with the pressure comes the burden of pretending to be something you are not. This brings with it feelings of exhaustion or inadequacy from trying to mold to fit in or align with societal standards. A Black female financial professional from the 2019 Harvard Business Review study affirms, “I also feel as though I am in a constant battle of censoring/watering down my views, thoughts, and personality for the possibility of being looked at differently than a nonblack man or woman in the workplace if they exhibited the same behavior. It’s exhausting navigating an all-white workplace.”
Censoring one’s self proves to have taxing effects. These effects are continuously placed on the backburner of importance in favor of appearance and avoidance of consequences. Learning the history and experiences of code-switching is necessary to address the system that allows for racial stereotypes and prejudices to persist in the first place.
A society that allows for European standards to be the norm is part of the problem that makes people of color have to mask their true selves daily in the workplace or at school.