To Code Switch Or Not To Code Switch?

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There is a concept that exists in African American culture that many minorities encounter when they enter the workforce. This concept is called code switching. Code switching is the process of making cultural adaptations and adjustments in order to communicate clearly with another culture. Code switching by  definition insists that one’s own native culture must be switched in order to navigate a new context. Such things that might be switched are style of dress, use of vernacular and certain references to the native culture. Many urban blacks who mobilize to higher status within their organization feel the pressure to take on an entirely new identity.

But when the office closes on Friday, Tyrone is back to being Tyrone. When he is on his drive back home on that Friday evening he feels a sense of relief. He can now be himself. Code switching happens in work environments, on phone calls with bill collectors, at press conferences for professional athletes and at schools. I remember growing up with the nickname “Junebug.” When I was at school I did not want to be called Junebug because it embarrassed me. I code switched and only wanted to be called Terence.

The underlying narrative to extreme code switching is that your culture is not esteemed here. Code switching is not innately wrong though. There are some scenarios in which we all must conform into corporate culture. But the reality is that black code switch is quite often more drastic and essential for success.

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This is a constant pressure that black men face that many white men never will as they seek upward mobility and opportunities. There are stories of working class whites or rural whites having to make adjustments in certain settings. I have even heard of southern whites having to switch it up as they apply for jobs in the north. There are exceptions to the rule. The challenge for minority men is to make necessary professional adaptations without degrading their native culture. The subtle message that can be understood is that black is not good enough in certain settings. Therefore, we must be careful about how we go about explaining and coaching people in code switching. In particular we must be careful not to further reinforce any inferiority complexes in our children as we send them to predominantly white schools, sports programs and neighborhoods. Talk clearly can easily be interpreted as talk white. Dress professionally can easily be understood to mean dress like the white man who owns the business. The message to black children and adults that are engaging in professional culture has to be that your black is beautiful and your black can express itself in a professional way. Black does not have to become white in order to be professional, dignified and respectable. Black does not have to be hateful in order to be proud and dignified. And if you are carrying yourself in a professional manner that does not mean that you are “acting white.” There is a dignified and rich history of black and educated men that have set a high standard for us as modern black men. The Booker T.  Washingtons, Thurgood Marshalls, MLKs, and Nelson Mandelas of of recent history have lived model lives that do not deny their blackness.

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The OJ Factor

In his critically acclaimed song “The LIfe of O.J” rapper Jay-z addresses the issue of color otherness. There are times when a black man reaches a certain level of success and appears to have graduated out of blackness. This black man is so successful that he is no longer black. Wouldn’t that be nice? To no longer have to deal with the stigmas and stereotypes associated with being a black man in America. Jay-z raps “I’m not black, Im OJ” pregnant pause “ok”. Regardless of how much we desire to conform or hide or blend in, we cannot escape the fact that we are black. No amount of green in a black man’s bank account can take away the amount of melanin in his skin. Therefore, he must learn to love what is in the mirror and not bend to the pressure of lightening his shade. Furthermore, he must feel the freedom to express his blackness in whatever way God has designed and conditioned him to. Whether hood or suburban. Black is beautiful.