For young, black professionals, code-switching is still a way of life

Changing language at work is all to offset stereotypes that African-Americans are aggressive, loud, angry or all of the above.
Published May 31
Updated May 31

Sue-Tanya Crosbourne typically enjoys rocking her natural hair, which is a big, curly afro.

But as a 24-year-old black woman who works in corporate America, she often feels compelled to tone down her hair by straightening it or wearing a sleek bun or ponytail to fit in with her white colleagues.

“It’s especially hard in the beginning with interviews or starting a job,” said Crosbourne, who works as an accountant at Big Brothers Big Sisters of America in Tampa.

“I can’t have anything too crazy or too big,” she said. “Once I feel more secure, I feel like I can do my hair the way I want. A lot of people are starting to go more natural now, but there’s still that conscious hesitation sometimes that we can’t do too much or go overboard.”

Purposely suppressing cultural identity is nothing new. In 1896, African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote We Wear the Mask:

We wear the mask that grins and lies,

It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes

—This debt we pay to human guile

Do Dunbar’s words ring true in 2019?

For many young, black professionals, the sense that they must hide their cultural preferences to succeed at work, in social situations or when interacting with police remains a primary theme.

They are code-switchers.

Code-switching is a linguistic term coined in the 1950s. Simply put, it means changing the way you communicate depending on the audience.

NPR has a podcast about it titled Code Switch. Sorry to Bother You, a movie about how a black telemarketer increased sales by adopting a white-sounding voice, was one of the most talked about films at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. The 2018 film BlacKkKlansman about a young, black detective who infiltrates the KKK by pretending to be white won an Academy Award. And 2018’s The Hate U Give, about a young, black girl who constantly switches between the poor, mostly black neighborhood where she lives and the wealthy, mostly white prep school she attends, was nominated for multiple NAACP Image awards.

Code-switching is all to offset stereotypes that African-Americans are aggressive, loud, angry or all of the above.

“I’m not ‘passionate’ as it would be for someone else,” said Brittiny Snowden, 29, a Tampa health insurance account supervisor. “If I get excited about something and I’m going hard about it, it’s a bad thing. But someone else can turn and say the exact same thing as me and everyone’s like, ‘Oh yeah that’s wonderful.’  ”

Fantasia Burley, 27, works in health care as a patient care coordinator. She often bites her tongue or controls her emotions during certain conversations about race to “blend in” with the majority.

“A lot of the time you find yourself in a situation where you have to play the game,” Burley said. “In my job, I’m the only person of color.”

Keith Harris, a 56-year-old vice president of human resources for Kobie Marketing, recalled the start of his career. Code-switching defined his 30 years in corporate America.

Amid the affirmative action movement in the ’70s and ’80s, he said, companies were actively seeking young, black employees.

“I went to Florida A&M University and they came to (historically black colleges and universities) just to look for black talent so it wasn’t necessary for us to be nonblack,” Harris said. “But when we got immersed into the new environment, the reality set in. It was absolutely necessary for us to start to figure out how to not just assimilate but to kind of play the game at a very high level early on.”

For Harris, this meant smiling more, being “cheery” to offset his intimidating deep voice and physical appearance as a 6-foot-2 black male and being the “butt of the latest black thing joke” about music or food.

“If you’re too black, then they’re not going to continue to accept you,” he said. “So our parents drilled that into us that the tamping down of who we are was a survival tool, but it was also a way to legitimize and add credibility that you belong. The less different you were then the more that you’re going to show that you belong.”

As the employer, Harris embraces diverse candidates who are authentic because it makes his company stronger.

But in 2019, why do African-Americans still feel it’s necessary to code-switch at work?

Michael Eric Dyson, author and Georgetown sociology professor, said he code-switches often, going from “highfalutin theoretical discourse down to gut bucket reality” in many of his speeches around the world.

Dyson, 60, sees no problem with it.

“Our culture is worth preserving and passing along,” he said. “We do that for survival. We do that for protection and preservation. We do that to create spaces of cultural intimacy, and because we reflect the values of black people. We have to speak in front of white folk who understand what we are saying so we have to be covert with it.

“You’re not a sellout. I told my son, ‘Sell out, Negro, until you get a job because you are on my payroll right now.’ ”

After college graduation, Vincent Sibley’s mother, father and barber all told him to cut his hair. He had a fade, close-cropped on the sides with long tendrils on top that spiked in every direction. His elders reasoned that he was about to enter corporate America and he needed to look the part.

Sibley, 26, cut his hair. He grew it back after he showed his co-workers old pictures and they loved his hairstyle.

“Had I known this, I would have never cut my hair in the first place,” said Sibley, a cyber intelligence analyst with Citi. “But I had so much pressure from my family and other people to do it.”

He was paranoid, buoyed by the insecurities of his parents’ generation.

“Things were like that 20 to 25 years ago, so we’re thinking about it,” Sibley said. “But it’s shifting. So I don’t wear the full mask. Maybe half of it.”

African-Americans code-switch to fit in, gain trust and make their white co-workers more comfortable. But they also code-switch because they want to be treated and paid fairly and considered for promotions. Or, in service jobs, they code-switch to earn an extra tip.

It’s more than paranoia. More than half of African-Americans report being personally discriminated against due to their race when it comes to being paid and treated equally, or when being considered for a promotion, according to a 2017 Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health study.

Even with the many historical advancements that African-Americans have made, including gaining the right to vote in the ’60s and electing a black president and more than 20 black women to serve in Congress, some believe it won’t be enough for African-Americans to remove the mask because it’s too deeply ingrained.

“I’d like to say there’s going to be a world where we don’t have to code-switch, but at this point, I don’t know that I can see that world,” said Erica Dawson, a poet and associate professor of English and writing at the University of Tampa.

“Despite the advancements we’ve made, we still bear the burden — the weight of the past, which was we weren’t good enough, or somehow we weren’t socially acceptable if we were being true to ourselves. It’s so much of our history, it’s so much of our story that other people wrote for us, that it’s hard to see past that when it’s almost internalized in our identity at this point.”

Contact Monique Welch at mwelch@tampabay.com. Follow Mo_UNIQUE.

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