Black Experience

Code Switching Defined

On Oct. 2 at DiversityInc’s Women of Color and Their Allies event, Kelley Cornish, Global Head of Diversity and Inclusion at TD Bank and Corie Pauling, SVP and CDO at TIAA, discussed the definition of code switching and what actions can be taken within a corporate setting to make code switching less of an organizational constraint and more of an opportunity.

DiversityInc CEO Carolynn Johnson mediated the discussion. “How do I show up and how do I have conversations at the very senior level of the organization?” Cornish said. “I think when we talk about code switching, it’s in all areas of our lives. Especially as black women, we’ve been doing this for so long that you don’t even realize you’re doing it… This is innate. It’s almost like a survival mechanism that you’ve created over time to navigate the area that you’re in.”

The textbook definition of code switching is the practice of alternating between two or more languages or varieties of language in a conversation. But code switching doesn’t just pertain to speech.

“It’s how we dress, it’s a sensitivity to jewelry, it’s makeup, it is body image, it’s hair. When I decide to get braids, I look in the mirror and I say, ‘OK, am I ready to do this?’” Pauling said. “When I do it, I’m relieved and happy, but it’s a [big] decision. I think of the next few months of meetings that I have. Is the coast clear?”

But code switching does have pros, as well as cons. One of the pros is that it gives you an ability others don’t have.

“You can go into a boardroom and level up,” Cornish said. “But you can also go to the community center at night and do what you need to do. It’s a gift and a talent to be able to do that. To know that at the end of the day, if you’ve done what you need to do at the highest level, then you can conquer the world.”
But there is stress involved with code switching, according to Cornish. She travels extensively for work and finds that particularly challenging.

“You have to change into a different being for each thing that you do. At the end of the day you get back to the hotel room, and you changed three times,” Cornish said.

Pauling brought up other cons that code switching can have on Black women in the workplace, in social situations and at home, as well as on their health. Long hours at work combined with specific needs for hair care can keep Black women from exercising as regularly.

“You can code switch so much you lose sight of yourself… and you can make decisions that compromise your well-being,” Pauling said. “The sacrifice that Black women have to make with respect to fitness. We don’t have the luxury of stopping work and going to work out. ‘I won’t work out until Thursday, because I just got my hair done.’ Which is crazy. Because your priority should be your emotional and physical well-being. Code switching can make you switch your priorities up.”

DiversityInc CEO Carolynn Johnson pointed out that LGBTQ and disabled people also code switch. It’s not just something that Black women do.

“By the time we’re done with this panel, everyone will realize that they do it. To know we do it isn’t enough,” Johnson said. “We need people to give us feedback. Because sometimes we do it and we don’t have to.”

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