What do code-switching, covering and assimilation have in common? They are all ways people change their behavior to fit a particular situation. For clarification, let’s begin with definitions of each:
- Code-switching is, according to a recent Harvard Business Review article, “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.” There’s also code-switching in bilingual and multilingual people who switch between languages in their conversations.
- Covering (sometimes called ‘passing’) is a tactic people use to minimize stereotyped or stigmatized parts of their identity in an effort to reduce the potential negative effects of bias.
- Assimilation is denouncing or abandoning one’s primary cultural practices and the adoption of another. While assimilation is deliberate, it typically surfaces under external pressure. Assimilation is a complete and, often, an enduring loss of culture—to the point that they become indistinguishable from the dominant group.
The Plank Center for Leadership in PR and the Public Relations Student Society (PRSSA) recently hosted a webinar entitled Code Switching: Building Resilience Amid Workplace Challenges. It was led by former PRSSA National President and Digital & Advocacy Communications Manager at IBM, Brandi Boatner, along with Dr. Nilanjana R. Bardhan, professor and director of graduate studies in the Department of Communication Studies at Southern Illinois University Carbondale (SIUC) and a Plank Center board member; and, moderated by Haniya Shariff, PRSSA National Board vice president of diversity and inclusion.
Dr. Bardhan kicked things off with a brief history and background, explaining that to be informed, we must first understand the history while also looking at the future. She says we need to talk about “the responsibility of leaders in our professions to build inclusive and intercultural workplaces.”
“Due to a history of racial oppression and segregation in the United States, code-switching tends to happen mainly along racial lines.” Dr. Bardhan explained. In the U.S., it “has come to mean how Black Americans and other people of color (POC) entering predominately White spaces (e.g., workplace, education) feel the pressure to conform to White norms, speech, practices, and appearance.”
Code-switching and the Black experience
Brandi Boatner explained that “Black Americans are in a unique position because our culture is also our race.” She says this traces all the way back to slavery, “when Black people’s identities were stripped away and had to adopt different identities, but still have the race and skin color (skin tone) be what defines you.” And yet, you can’t tell the story of America without telling the story of Black people (technology, pop culture, food, music).
Boatner says Black people are always code-switching in the workplace as a survival mechanism to avoid negative stereotypes. And it comes at a significant cost —the result of using code-switching as a ‘coping strategy’ is often exhaustion, burnout, emotional stress, and the inability to be fully productive.
A great visual example of code-switching is this GIF of (then) President Obama greeting the U.S. men’s Olympic basketball team in 2012. Notice the distinct difference between how he greets the white coach and how he greets NBA All-Star Kevin Durant.
Boatner went on to talk about covering (or ‘passing’), “downplaying a known stigmatized identity to blend into the mainstream.” Dr. Kenji Yoshino calls covering the “hidden assault on our civil rights,” and in 2006 literally wrote the book on it.
According to a Deloitte report on Inclusion, there are four types of covering: appearance-based, affiliation-based, advocacy-based and association-based. The study reported that 61% of all employees in the workplace cover—with the largest groups being LGBTQ+ (83%), Blacks (79%) and Hispanics (63%).
Boatner says, “There is an inherent need for us to bring our authentic self not only to the workplace but also our personal lives.” That brings to mind what Shakespeare famously wrote in Hamlet, “This above all: to thine own self be true.”
Boatner shared a quote from Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Strategist Arthur Chan:
“Diversity is a FACT. Equity is a CHOICE. Inclusion is an ACTION. Belonging is an OUTCOME.”
She believes we are currently in the “inclusion phase” — we need to take action, either championing for inclusive workspaces or calling-on leaders to practice inclusive leadership, and to be sure we (as communicators) are using inclusive communications.
Inclusion means that all individuals are treated fairly and respectively, have equal access to opportunities and resources, and can fully contribute to the organization’s success.
Leaders need to lead with inclusion, be an example, and be held accountable—and make sure DEI programs encourage differences (not expect conformity). She says leaders who just ‘check the boxes’ are merely going through the motions. We need to show up and be ‘color brave,’ not color blind. Corporate statements of support are good, but tangible, measurable actions are better.
Boatner shared several recent actions taken by industry leaders and brands that demonstrate all of these qualities. She encourages everyone to consider all of this when looking at potential employers and in the brands we support.
If you are among those who don’t need to code-switch, then here are four steps you can take:
- Build empathy and mindfulness
- Check your bias
- Offer affirmations
- Be an active ally
Beyond being an ally, she challenged us to be an “accomplice” – meaning we are intentionally and actively involved in helping, rather than just cheering from the sidelines.
A good start, and a long way to go, in public relations
While code-switching is universal in our society, it’s especially prevalent in the PR profession, where the industry is nearly 90% White, says Dr. Bardhan. The good news is that it’s changing —and while the work has started, there is still a long way to go. She also says to build resilience if you find you do code-switch by seeking out allies and mentors, embracing your identity and being your authentic self.
Several years ago, after I had finished a client meeting and emerged from my (work-from-home) office, my husband said, “You must’ve been talking with someone in the south.” I laughed and said yes, but how did he know? Apparently, I naturally code-switched to a southern accent and slang. Since then, I’ve noticed that I do the same thing when talking with Black friends and colleagues, and when I’m around other generations (age groups)—modifying my language and mannerisms.
The immense difference in what I (and many other White folks) do is that it’s simple. We don’t feel pressured to do it or that our career advancement depends on it.
Black people’s code-switching in the workplace is complex and can have real-world consequences—both social and psychological—as outlined in a recent Harvard Business Review research-backed article.
Diversity without inclusion simply isn’t enough.
*The playback link for the webinar should be available soon on the PRSSA webinars page.