The Deeper Issue with Code-Switching
For many of us, the end of code-switching is the beginning of emotional justice.
By Kashara Johnson
For many of us, code-switching, the practice of switching our language or behavior depending on the social context, has been a means of survival in predominantly White, male, cis-gender spaces.
As a child, I witnessed how opportunities were granted when a person was able to move fluidly in and out of White culture. Taking note of this, I learned to do the same. I wouldn’t say it was a conscious thing necessarily. It was more of an engraining - something that I considered to just be a way of life. However, years later, I find myself in an arduous season of reckoning. While I can confidently say that I’ve worked my ass off to get to where I am today, I’m also able to see the ways in which I’ve benefited from my ability to code-switch. So much so that a few years ago I came to a realization that I’d never really given myself a chance to learn who I really was. The question was and still is “Who am I when I’m not toting the cultural line or trying to make others feel comfortable around me?”
Code-switching is referenced in many jokes. From skits about Obama to videos on code-switching at work, it’s portrayed as more of a funny thing that we all just live with. But when you take a closer look, it’s a symptom of trauma and rejection. And no - the trauma may not be physical or sexual, but when your core identity is rejected implicitly and/or explicitly from a young age, those experiences will affect you just as deeply. There are plenty of reasons why we code-switch, but the one that I’ve found to be the most common is for acceptance and increasing the odds of opportunity.
What I’ve realized in my journey of self-discovery is that living in that space of duality feels a lot like wearing a mask for 8+ hours out of the day. Being able to take that mask off only when at home is exhausting and wreaks havoc on our mental health because whether we realize it or not, code-switching is a roundabout way of telling ourselves that we are not enough. That our true identities are not worthy of being shared with others and that we have to make ourselves more palatable or digestible for others. It causes a cycle of perpetual self-rejection and invalidation of our core identities.
Code-switching as a survival mechanism
For many of us, the end of code-switching is the beginning of emotional justice. I’ve written about the need to put a name to the things that cause suffering. If we’re on a path of emotional justice, then we also must recognize code-switching as something that hinders our journey on that path. And in order to properly address the root cause of it, we have to go back to the source of our pains. Part of emotional justice is empowering ourselves and others to go back to the source of suffering and invite it to the surface. We owe it to ourselves to deal with those residual feelings of invalidation, rejection, and low self-worth.
I’ve recently finished reading a book by Thich Nhat Hanh called Good Citizens. Much of it is about mindful practices, right action, and cultivating a shared sense of compassion. What I found to be the most interesting, however, were the parts on suffering, specifically this quote —
“Handling suffering is an art. If you know how to handle your pain, your sorrow, and your fear, you know how to create happiness. The art of creating happiness and the art of handling suffering are the same thing.”
I’m learning that I can trust myself to handle my suffering. I don’t have to hide parts of myself or push down the suffering to cope. Relieving my own suffering relieves a bit of suffering in the world. I don’t have to code-switch because I don’t have to seek the acceptance of others and continuing to do so would be doing a disservice to myself as well as those who will come after me. While the only feasible path may appear to be assimilation, the best may be to actually carve out our own spaces, pave our own lanes, and build our own tables that include seats for everyone.
So how exactly do we create spaces in which individuals don’t feel the need to code-switch?
Who’s responsibility is it to do such a thing? The answer — all of us.
It starts with all of us taking small steps for the greater result. It requires those of us who are marginalized to step into who we are and to show up fully in all spaces. It’s easier said than done. The conscious decision to reveal our identities to those who may not understand or accept it requires a tremendous amount of courage and vulnerability. That’s something that I admittedly don’t always possess, but honestly, our cultures and histories are too rich to not share. Our differences are our greatest strengths. That’s something that I honestly have to remind myself of constantly. That path less traveled can be a lonely one especially when we’re all accustomed to group mentality.
For those who are part of the majority, or have been blessed with the protection from these kinds of pressures such as code-switching, it will require taking the initiative to break down barriers and systems that force others to hide key parts of their identities. Speak up and call it out. The health of our lives and communities depends on it.
The truth is that code-switching is a disservice to everyone. It stifles innovation, and it perpetuates the cycle of broken communities. Our world is becoming increasingly globalized. We have incredibly complex world issues that require solutions that won’t come from those who have been privileged with the validation of their voices and ideas. These solutions will need to come from varied and diverse individuals who are able to show up fully as themselves without fear of rejection or pushback. Showing up is a requirement for living a full life.
We are enough. We can trust ourselves to handle the deeply rooted sources of our suffering and self-doubt. We are courageous enough to share the truest expression of ourselves regardless of the approval of others.