People of Color Talk About the Times They ‘Code-Switched’
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People of Color Talk About the Times They ‘Code-Switched’

“Acting white” can be a survival strategy, but it also comes with a lot of baggage.
August 17, 2017, 7:27pm

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

When I was 16, I landed my first job interview at a shoe store. Shaking with adolescent fear, I remember thinking to myself OK Moses, don't worry, you got this—just act white. As I walked through the shoe aisles and into the back room, I ended up doing just that. I rose my naturally deep voice up an octave, used words I would normally reserve for essays, and gesticulated like an idiot.

But you know what, I got the job.

What I did has a formal name called "code-switching," and honestly, it's something we all do. We all change ourselves in different scenarios, bend our personalities to accommodate certain situations, whether it's a date, a job interview, or hanging with dude bros. But for people of color, the phenomenon constantly challenges our conception of identity and culture, making us question who we really are. At times we'll change our vocabulary and inflection to seem less like a minority, or hide aspects of ourselves to fit in more.

I used it to seem more like the guy who was interviewing me, a suburban white man, and less like the guy who's actually me, a Latino kid.

I did it because despite how much Canada lauds itself as a multicultural nation, to the public, your culture can feel like baggage, or at worst an embarrassment. For us, code-switching is a tool that allows us to circumvent those uncomfortable situations, to put on a mask so as not to confuse people with our "otherness."

Some of us know it as acting white, while others will refer to it as acting Canadian, professional, or even "proper." Regardless of the terminology, the phenomenon is wide reaching and to get a better hold on what exactly this means, I asked people of color what their experiences were and how it made them feel.

Jenny, 22

VICE: Can you tell me about an experience with code-switching?
Jenny: One experience that really stuck out to me was when I was 17. I had this friend and we were close for a year and a half. He was someone who I thought knew everything about me. I know I really downplayed the Sri Lankan side of me back in high school, but I didn't realize how much.

One day, my parents invited him to have dinner with us. My mom cooked rice and a bunch of curry. We were having dinner and you know, instinctively, I washed my hands, sat down and I started eating rice with my hands. A minute later, I looked up and he was just looking at me and watching me eat. I guess it was just something that never came up in conversation, something I never really shared. But the second I was at home with my family it was just like an automatic switch; I didn't bother to ask for a fork and knife. And that's something that's really stuck out to me because he had known me for that long and he never knew the other side to who I was. But that was a moment of switching back to the person that I am around my family.

How'd that make you feel?
He was really shocked, and it made me feel pretty ashamed actually. I remember, I kind of played it off like "oh yeah, you didn't you know?" I get super, super self-conscious whenever I realize that something as simple as that is so foreign to some people. It's even more foreign sometimes because the person that I am around them is not, that. I think it almost makes it more jarring because they don't see you as someone who's traditional or super ethnic in the outside settings. So when they see that I just like dive right in, it's more jarring to them and that makes me feel super self-conscious of my traditions, culture, and my habits even.

Tanya, 20

VICE: How would you explain code-switching?
Tanya: I would explain it as something that generally people of color or minorities do in order to feel—or feel that they have to do—to be accepted within the majority. It's usually something that's imparted on them, something they've been made to feel that they have to do. Whether that be through changing the way they speak or changing the way they dress.

Really anything that you do to fit into the majority to be accepted.

What experiences have you had with code-switching?
Where I've noticed the most is where I live, where I've been brought up in Markham, Ontario. Like I am part of the majority; everybody looks like me. Everybody is really from immigrant children, their parents are from South Asia or Southeast Asia. So we all look very similar, we all come from the same backgrounds, and we all speak the same way.

When I came to London, Ontario, I suddenly became part of the minority. I would say things with an accent, it's not something that I ever noticed and it's not something that was ever corrected because it was normal where I grew up. But there, people would giggle, or would ask "wait, what did you say?"

I definitely noticed it in certain situations. I don't live and breathe at fancy restaurants but on occasion when I find myself at a super fancy restaurant, I definitely feel like I have to put on a front or act differently to fit in. Which I guess is generally what people feel at a fancy restaurant, but being part of the minority in those restaurants, I have to work extra hard just so people don't feel like "oh she's fobby, she's from India."

There's just always that annoying little voice in my head.

Hisam (Sam), 24

VICE: Tell me about your experiences with code-switching.
Hisam: My real name is Hisam. I was looking for a job and I had applied everywhere. all of my resumes said Hisam, my name. So what I ended up doing was changing it to Sam. When I applied to the same places, I ended up getting sixteen calls back out of 50 resumes. With Hisam, I actually only ended up getting one, and it was the exact same resume.

How did that make you feel when you started getting all those replies because you put Sam in your resume?
I was shocked. That was the first form of white washing myself that I promised I'd never do as a kid, and that threw me off, hard. Sam never existed, not until I got my second job. It wasn't part of my identity, but it is now. Three-years later.

How would you explain "code-switching"?
I guess I feel like I have to present myself in a more formal way. Especially at work or even when I'm around white friends. If I use slang or if I use words that are used around my non-white friends, they kind of look at it different like it's ghetto or weird. It's really fake in the end. You're just putting on an act to impress someone, to show that you're "proper," to show that you fit in and that you're able to position yourself in a way that's acceptable.

Larry, 29

VICE: What experiences have you had with code-switching?
Larry: I switch personas for myself because of the different things that I'm involved with. Often, I will switch when I have to become more of an authority figure. That could be being involved with a Goodwill board of directors, if I'm doing a business meeting, hiring, or when I'm teaching at a university. I do find that for myself, I do have to create those personas for those situations.

How would you describe these personas?
When I used to do phone calls, when I was just starting my business, I definitely saw that I was kind of creating this white persona. I would change my tone or change my accent or sometimes try to use specific vocabulary that was more suitable in a way.

But I definitely think from the tone and how I speak, I would try to create this perception that I was not a minority. I definitely tried to present myself in kind of that white persona.

I have a scenario where I interviewed with an individual and we talked through email and over the phone. Then after she first came in to meet with me, she was acting awkward and weird. It wasn't until the end of the interview that she said, "Oh, I thought you were actually white."

Samah, 22

VICE: What have your experiences been with code-switching?
Samah: Over the past few years I've been really good with monitoring my behavior when I'm with people. I tend not to code-switch as much as I used to. I remember when I was in high school and even my early university days, I would code-switch all the time especially depending on what group I was in. If I was in a group of predominantly non-black people I would typically speak properly so that people didn't associate me with being one of "those blacks." But as I've grown older, I realized that those are just stereotypes and biases that people just presume of you. Like if I come from Toronto, they'll think I'm from this neighborhood when I'm actually from that neighborhood, and I went to this school. As I've grown older I've been really aware of policing myself. When I started to work in different spaces, I made sure that my hair is still the same—with naturally textured, the way I want it to be. I don't let other people determine what I look like.

Whether that's me coming to work with braids one day, me coming into work with natural length the next day, coming in with a wig, or whatever, it doesn't matter. I feel like breaking those stereotypes as well as what it means to be respectable in different environments, whether it's with your friends or in corporate settings, I've been very diligent in not policing myself and making sure I don't code-switch.

How would you explain code-switching to someone who doesn't know?
I refer to code-switching as "coat-switching." I think that's the best analogy for it. So based on the environment that you are in, you're going to wear a different coat because that is the identity, that is the reputation, that is the person that you are going to be playing up for that moment.

Naciza, 21

Can you tell me some experiences you had with code-switching?
Naciza: I literally do it all the time. The most prominent example right now is work. I do work in customer service, so I have to be very mindful of the way I talk and the way I behave, especially as a black woman. I can't really have an off-day the way that my coworkers necessarily can because my off-days are going to be interpreted as "oh, she's just angry and black," instead of "oh, she's having a bad day." I have to be very mindful of the way I'm talking and the way that I'm displaying myself. I have to make sure it's very much in line with the norm—which is pretty much white culture. I can't be black. I can't make references because they won't get it, especially in a work setting.

My accent also changes, along with the way I speak and the pace at which I speak it. Because when I'm around my black friends—they're Carribean and African—we talk very fast with one another and it's like I'm speaking an English dialect. I noticed that in some cases, my voice goes deeper.

Filson, 25

VICE: What have been your experiences with code-switching?
Filson: I code-switch like literally every day. I'm a sales associate at a sports store and my voice is naturally very deep. I've even been caught code-switching. One time, a lady came in the store and I talked to her in a very high pitch tone, just to make her feel comfortable. We did the whole transaction and as she was leaving, I turned around and started talking to my co-workers in my normal voice. She turned the corner then came back to ask where the bathroom was and she caught me. I was like "Oh hey! Yeah, the bathroom is just over there." I'm sure she was wondering where this voice came from.

Do you feel that depending on who the person is you'll switch?
I'd say yes. The majority of the people coming to the store where I work are like 95 percent white, and yeah I do talk in a certain tone. Honestly, I just do it to make them feel comfortable. My job definitely serves a different crowd. It's still predominantly white, however, there's still Filipino, Indian, Sri Lankan, Muslim, Somalian, and black people that come in. I still code-switching, but if someone gives me that leeway, I'll go back to myself.

It's not just white people, I code-switch with immigrants too. I'm not going to talk to my parents in certain tones. I'll slow my speech down and use some broken English here and there. I'm like never really myself I guess. Everyone says they're real, but it's not necessarily true, It's an acting job.

Nasma, 22

VICE: How does it make you feel having to code-switch?
Nasma: You feel like you're losing a part of yourself and you feel like you have to blend into this new predicament or situation. For a while, I actually felt very off about how quickly I could code-switch. It was so easy for me to just switch up and operate on a different level. I realized how tiring it was as well because I would have to police my language. If I say something that's a bit too radical or too left leaning, that makes people uncomfortable. I kind of got really tired. I remember I would go to work events—and if I brought friends with me, I'd have to remind them that as soon as I enter this space, you'll be witnessing a whole new version of me. It makes you think when are you actually sharing who you are. I think we're constantly showing different versions of ourselves based on who we're with.

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