Shielding My Blackness In Corporate America: A Lesson In Code-Switching

Minorities In Media Connect
Minorities In Media Connect

By: Chris Lubin

Six months ago, I wrote an email to all of the founding partners at my agency urging them to think about diversity as it related to black people. The agency had already made serious strides in other areas. There was already a conscious effort to recruit internationally, women held numerous executive roles and the agency was starting a new program aimed at tearing down The Last Silo — the barrier between the ever growing Hispanic population and its representation in advertising. But, this had not extended itself to black people, my people. The people who dominate Twitter trends with hilarious hashtags and provide the culture that is too often appropriated and reused in advertising  without any of the representation or credit.

My plea for this was kicked off after I had gotten off the phone with one of my old friends from my block. My half of the conversation went something like this:

“What’s shakin'?

“Ain’t sh*t, chillin' at work right now”

“Nah, I had to curve it bro. Wasn’t my look”

“Oh word? Yeah I heard it was lit, I just couldn’t swing it” 

And we went on like that, back and forth for a couple minutes.

When I hung up my coworker and good friend looked at me incredulously and said,  “Clubs, who was that? You sounded so ghetto!”

Initially, I was caught off guard and offended by the mention of “ghetto” – the oft-used racially tinged nod to black people. My initial offense was soon overcome by a deeper understanding.  What she was really saying was that for the first time in our many years of working together this was the first time she had truly heard me speak like how she imagines most black people to speak.

Her ignorance led to the letter.

My realization led to some introspection.

The first few days and even months after that I was a much more active listener to my own self when I was speaking. Parsing each word, cautious to inject just the right amount of blackness but not too much, as that would threaten the image and potential fabric of the relationships that I had (un)consciously built amongst my coworkers. As one can imagine, this is was an exercise doomed to fail from the very beginning and one that caused much more torment than good.
The truth is, most of us code-switch. It’s more reflexive than intentional. twitter_newbird_blue

You build up muscle memory from years of being taught how to look and sound professional and then default to the more accepted synonyms in specific situations. The problem occurs when the specific becomes the norm and you start to lose a sense of you. As many of us spend upwards of 50+ hours at work, it can feel that our only identity is who we are amongst the sea of Australians and British and regular White folk.

Which is why I learned to stop thinking about each word, each phrase. Language is an agent for identity and it’s possible and important to have awareness and consideration for the duality of our identities.  We’re unknowingly treating our coworkers like Instagram and our "real friends" like Snapchat. The challenge is figuring out how to get more of our "real friends” to come work with us. 

Experienced something like this at your job? Tell us more in the comments below.