Code switching. Most of us do it. Some of us turn down the African American Vernacular English (“You seen this email?” vs. “Have you seen this email?”) or maybe hold off on the “rapper hands” annotating each rap lyric thumping through your earphones. Code switching also encompasses thoughts and behaviors that are effected by stereotype threat. Like when Kathy wants to know what your favorite item at the luncheon was, and you thought the fried chicken was hittin, do you think twice? If you’re the only Black person in the room, are you less likely to raise your hand to ask a question because you don’t understand something? All of these changes in behavior occur when the racial composition of a given professional environment is liken to the racial composition of the nation (we’re 13% of the nation’s population by the way).
When the ratio of Blacks to Whites is reversed, code switches apparently get turned off left and right. I had a meeting yesterday with three Black coworkers and one White manager. Usually the Black employees code-switch to a reasonable degree, but you should have seen Monica snapping her neck and waving her index finger when we had suddenly become the majority. Code switches got murked at this meeting. My fellow coworkers were responding to each other with “Girl, yes” and “Not even though”. I even hit my palm with my fist while presenting a Power Point.
It was at that point that I realized how White people switch up at work. They use silence. A lot of times, when Black people act “Black” around White people, the White people don’t say shit. They just awkwardly smile and nod their heads with a blank stare. My manager is the most outspoken manager in our division, but she was quiet as a mouse when it was all Black folk around…being Black.
But today, I was surrounded by outgroup minorities and the tables turned. This morning I had to go out of town to do some field observations with 2 of my Asian coworkers. During breakfast, they got to joking about their Asian friends and colleagues. Suddenly, my situation resembled that of my manager’s yesterday. Here they were, talking about how their Asian family members don’t tip very well and how my coworker got banned from a go kart track because her driving was so bad, and I couldn’t say a damn thing. If I laughed, I’d seem racist, and if I started pitching in, I’d definitely seem racist. I surely wasn’t about to contribute to the conversation with my own references.
So I was silent while I nodded and smiled awkwardly.
Ratios. Everybody switches up their behavior to varying degrees depending on the racial composition the people around them. Those varying degrees are impacted by everything from music to the history books. Sometimes the code-switching and behavior modifications can stress you the hell out and all of us change our behaviors in different ways. During the field observations, my coworkers and I had a great conversation about how diverse the United States is. We talked about how it’s easy to take the our experiences with other cultures for granted. Not to get all We Are the World on you but, multiculturalism is a beautiful thing. And as time progresses, the ratios will matter less and less.