constantly being under a magnifying glass
November 18, 2019 8:02 AM   Subscribe

Broadly, code-switching involves adjusting one’s style of speech, appearance, behavior, and expression in ways that will optimize the comfort of others in exchange for fair treatment, quality service, and employment opportunities. Research suggests that code-switching often occurs in spaces where negative stereotypes of black people run counter to what are considered “appropriate” behaviors and norms for a specific environment. We also see examples of guidelines encouraging black people to code-switch to survive police interactions, such as “acting polite and respectful when stopped” and “avoiding running even if you are afraid.” Based on our research and the work of others, we argue that code-switching is one of the key dilemmas that black employees face around race at work.

Given previous discussions about making Metafilter welcome for members of color, I would like to suggest that white folks in particular read the entire article before commenting.
posted by sciatrix (6 comments total) 48 users marked this as a favorite
as an immigrant, and not as an African American, I recognize that this article is not about my specific experience, but I wonder, to what degree, our code-switching burdens are analogous and/or dissimilar to each other. Like, immigrants face a significant, socially accepted burden of having to conform to American culture through "the melting pot" concept and do not bring their authentic selves to work. Or perhaps, the more accurate expectation is that we are required, by the melting pot, to transform our authentic selves into something more American.

And, yeah, basically I think there's a bigger question about what "counts" as American in a larger society and how that may overlay on workplaces and companies that straddle national borders. You don't have to be a big company anymore to have an international presence. Fully remote startups like GitLab or Automattic/Wordpress exist, and in those companies, code-switching happens all the time but is more bi-directional and having Americans adapting to the behaviors and communication patterns of their international colleagues just as much as others adapt to them.

Essentially, I think that, if you're going to have a diverse workplace, it's less about eliminating code-switching as a phenomenon but it's more about making the work of adaptation shared across all people regardless of their cultural background; but then drawing some boxes around your organization's own particular norms and how you'd enforce that ideally separated from cultural bias.
posted by bl1nk at 9:42 AM on November 18, 2019 [5 favorites]

I appreciate this article, and its definitely given me some things to consider & bring to my organization. I'm also happy, and maybe a little surprised, to see it in HBR.
posted by feckless at 9:56 AM on November 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

As found in our data, code-switching also occurs when there are roughly equal numbers of black and non-black employees,
My immediate question is does this equal number of black employees equally hold positions of power within the company?
posted by RobotHero at 10:12 AM on November 18, 2019 [12 favorites]

Check out William Dressler’s work on Cultural Consonance. He’s been arguing for years that this is incredibly damaging to health, based on his work in Detroit and other places.
posted by bilabial at 1:05 PM on November 18, 2019 [5 favorites]

(I'm also not Black - I'm Asian American.)

Sometimes there's conversational code-switching. Like: in white spaces, I need to remind myself that casually bringing up whiteness or race can be "touchy". Or white people might fall over themselves trying to prove how they're one of the 'good ones'. I do need to consider things that I'd say without a second thought to friends who aren't white.

It's worthwhile thinking about how the article applies to communities, including this one. What kind of code-switching am I doing so that the conversation is palatable or comprehensible?
posted by suedehead at 5:20 PM on November 18, 2019 [9 favorites]

Really interesting article. I read HBR somewhat regularly and they have good research articles like this frequently. I think the management field has started to realize that white male dominance in the workplace is not actually the fault of all of the non-white males. The trend in the past was a lot of articles about how to fit in and gain mentorship from white men, now they actually admit there is bias against people of color and women.

On the note of calling out white people specifically, I noticed the article was very careful not to do that (the audience is likely white managers.) Particularly jarring when I was reading the section titled “for leaders and co-workers” and realized it should have been titled “for white people (or non-black people)” as it was clearly directed to people holding the racial biases. Black people can obviously be leaders as well, so rethink that section title.

Corporate America has a truly bizarre culture that has almost nothing to do with the culture of most people’s everyday lives. The longer I work the more strange it is to me, and especially how it refuses to change over time. It would be nice to be able to be oneself at work and just do your job. The power dynamics really make it impossible though.

I’m white, but female, and so my behavioral modification at work is far less taxing, but still there - don’t be aggressive or shrill. Don’t talk about really female things too much (babies/ houses / cooking). Listen politely to discussions of country clubs and other things you don’t care about. So many white people talking about golf.
posted by rainydayfilms at 3:33 AM on November 19, 2019 [5 favorites]

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