Entertainment

People of Colour Talk About the Times They ‘Code Switched’

“Acting white” can be a survival strategy, but it also comes with a lot of baggage.

by Moses Monterroza
Aug 17 2017, 7:27pm

Asset image, shutterstock | Graphic design by. Noel Ransome

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 backroom, 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 colour, 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.

For me 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 colour 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've been best friends for a year and a half. He was someone who I thought knew everything about me. And I know I really downplayed the Sri Lankan side of me back in highschool, 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. This is someone who's known me for a year and a half, and I didn't even realize. I was just eating. 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, you know? 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 otherside 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, it made me feel pretty ashamed actually. I remember, I kind of played it off like "oh yeah, 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 colour, 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 made to feel that they have to do. Whether that be through changing the way they speak, 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, SouthEast Asia. So we all look very similar, we all come from the same backgrounds, we speak the same way.

When I came to Western (in 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 here. But there, people would giggle, or would ask "wait, what did you say?"

I definitely noticed it in certain situations. You know, not that I live and breathe 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, act differently, fit a certain way, act a certain way. Which I guess, generally what people would 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 over town and all of the resumes said Hisam. 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, 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 times 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 had to interview an individual and we talked through multiple emails and phone calls, and then after she first came into meet with me, she was kind of awkward and weird. It wasn't until the end of the interview that she said, "oh I thought you were actually a white caucasian."

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 behaviour 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 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 a little more presentable so that people don'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 neighbourhood when I'm actually from this neighbourhood and I went to this school. And as I've grown older I've been really aware of policing myself. When I started to work in different spaces, I've made sure that my hair is still the same, with natural textures that 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, whether it's 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. The way I speak and the pace at which I speak. Because when I'm around my black friends - they're like 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 code switching?
Filson: I code-switch like literally everyday. For me, I'm a sales associate at a sports store and my voice is naturally very deep. I've 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. And we did the whole transaction and as she was leaving, I turned around and started talking to my co-workers in my normal voice. And she turned the corner, came back, she wanted to know where the washroom was and she caught me. I was like "Oh hey! Yeah the washroom is just over there." I'm sure she was wondering where this voice came from.

Do you feel like depending on the person you'll switch?
I'd say yes. We work Leaf games and Raptor games, the majority of the people coming the store are like 95% white, and yeah I do talk in a certain tone and honestly I just do it to make them feel comfortable. Raptor games, definitely a different crowd. Still predominantly white, however, there's still Filipino, Indian, Sri Lankan, Muslim, Somalian, black people, whatever. I'm still code-switching, but if someone gives me that leeway I'll go back to myself.

For a Leaf game the word "beauty" flies around a lot. Like "oh she's a beauty, she's a beaut." You know, with the hockey bros. Raptor games, I just talk the way I normally talk now that I think about it.

It's not just white people, I still code-switch with immigrants. I'm not going to talk to my parents in certain tone. You know? Slow it down, 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. 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 in this new predicament or situation. So, for a while I actually felt very off about how quickly I could code-switch. How easy it had become for me to just switch up and operate on a different level. And I was realizing how tiring it was as well, because I would have to also police my language. If I say something that's a bit too radical, whatever that even means, if I say something that's too left leaning or that makes people uncomfortable. I kind of got really tired. I remember I would go to work events, and maybe I would be speaking at a panel — and if I brought friends with me, I'd have to remind them that hey, as soon as I enter this space, you'll be witnessing a whole new version of me. Just reminding you. 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.

Follow Moses Monterroza on Twitter.