Code-Switching

Mikael Wagner
5 min readSep 25, 2023

Have you ever found yourself stressed when preparing for what you believe would be the perfect job opportunity? You walk into an interview and immediately your stomach knots up when you observe five white people waiting to question you about your experience and if you could fit into their company’s environment. It happens more than one likes to admit, especially if your cultural background is not white. No matter how intelligent you are, doubt tends to creep into the situation. This feeling has existed throughout the many years of my career. Over time you learn to manage these situations although there is always that obnoxious voice of fear telling you to tread very carefully.

As a young boy, my siblings and I were taught to speak different forms of English. Growing up in an ethnic community of predominately Black people and others with cultural backgrounds like Asian/Pacific Islander, Italian, French, Samoan, Tongan, Mexican/Latino, Korean, and many others, we learned to communicate with each other using slang and words that the mainstream populations couldn’t understand. Learning to speak our community language helped to save many lives. For example, in an unsafe environment or situation, we would say something to alert each other of potential danger and those with white skin couldn’t understand what we were saying to each other. They considered us to be inferior to them, saying that we couldn’t speak English properly. Their ignorance always made us laugh afterward. Even my old uncles and aunts spoke in slang with a bit of Creole when they didn’t want the curious children to eavesdrop on their conversations.

The second language taught at home was to speak English properly when outside of the community, at school, at medical appointments, or when applying for jobs. We always called it pretending to be white, but today it’s called being skilled and versatile. After so many years of practice, it became easier every day to switch back and forth, making it easier to survive and fit into society. Often, those of us who learned to switch back and forth were often teased by other Blacks in the community as pretending to speak like white people. Many of them didn’t learn the technique and ended up never leaving low-income communities to change their lives. Many of my old friends, the ones that haven’t died, are still living in the same housing projects with their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

“Code-switching,” a term for adapting one’s style of speech, appearance, or behavior to gain acceptance and make others feel more comfortable, is one of the core dilemmas black employees face at work. While code-switching is often seen as necessary for professional advancement, there’s a great psychological cost to those who feel they can’t truly be themselves at work. Code-switching has long been a strategy for black people to successfully navigate interracial interactions and has large implications for their well-being, economic advancement, and even physical survival.

Initially, learning to code-switch was difficult, but later just became a part of our lives, especially if we wanted to survive in a racist country like America. Often, white people would show their annoyance by voicing how that no matter how good my language skills were, I would never be part of their superior race, although most of them were the most uneducated and inferior people. They used the colour of their skin to try to convince people they were the chosen race. No surprise that even today, 60 years later, the same misinformation is being taught to their children and grandchildren. Will things ever change in the treatment of people of colour? Not in my lifetime, if at all.

Learning emotional intelligence skills in collaboration with code-switching helped me to survive. Everyday tasks could put a person of colour’s life in jeopardy. Simply walking into a local pharmacy, department store, medical centre, financial institution, or when looking for an apartment to rent was always stressful. Without giving it much thought, my brain would flip the switch to surprise the police or security guards, even though many resented their aggressive fear techniques that didn’t work on me and others. Emotional intelligence taught me how to fill my brain with information collected from my surroundings before emptying my mouth like a fool. Without this talent, I am certain I would have been murdered many years ago by the police for being a smart-mouth Black person.

To my surprise, many white people are surprised by people like me and will often say, “You speak English very well, are you American?” Or “Is one of your parents white, you are not very Black?” My mother warned us that other people who may look like us can be more cruel in their attacks. I can remember applying for a position in public health. Initially, I was thrilled to see 2 Black women on the interview panel. Experience taught me to make them proud by pushing myself to show my skills. One of the Black women turned out to be extremely rude and nasty for no apparent reason. It didn’t stop me from excelling and responding to the interview questions appropriately. After the interview, it was shared with me that the Black woman from Human Resources didn’t like me because I came across as too friendly, too funny, and too engaging which told her that I was trying to make up for having no skills. Most people would be angry, but it made me laugh and showed me how so many weak Black or other people of colour are hired to try to destroy qualified people. I am still grateful to the other people on the committee and the one Black woman left who kept pushing me with excellent questions and insight. I did get the job, but the HR “Aunt Tomasine” never spoke to me again for the next 3 years. Her lack of acknowledgment brought me pleasure. In fact, I tried to always be in meetings or in departments where she was presenting so I could watch her face become twisted like a cartoon character. I still don’t understand the logic of hating someone of the same race or anyone of colour. My parents taught me to respect everyone, regardless of their job or the colour of their skin. Moving forward, lessons in life taught me to only respect those who have gained my respect.

Today, I am surprised that discrimination still exists in business and other institutions when it comes to involving people of colour or diverse cultures that may speak with beautiful accents. The more diversity we hear, the less pressure people may feel to adapt to one specific prestigious accent to be perceived as professional and competent. I still love it when I get together with my true community friends and speak in fun tongues, slang, and whatever makes us enjoy each other.

To learn more about Code-Switching and the impact it can have on one’s life, check out the video, The Cost of Code-Switching with Chandra Arthur as she is giving a presentation with TEDxOrlando.

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Mikael Wagner

Mikael Wagner is a communications project manager with focus on health promotion, public relations , marketing and focus group facilitation.