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Why We Code-switch and Cover Our Real Selves
Oby Bamidele

I recently facilitated a workshop on diversity and inclusion which explored how much of our real, authentic and true selves we bring to work. 

I read an interesting study conducted by Deloitte University ( Leadership centre for inclusion) which revealed that 61% of people believe that in order to succeed at work we have to hide elements of who we really are, because revealing those parts will hinder our success.

The study defined Covering as “when we suppress or try to mask our natural characteristics or natural instincts in order to succeed at work”. The four ways an individual can cover are: 

Appearance based covering  –  “Covering concerns how individuals alter their self-presentation — including grooming, attire, and mannerisms, in order to blend into the mainstream. For instance, a Black woman might straighten her hair to de-emphasize her race”

Affiliation based covering –  Where individuals avoid behaviours widely associated with their identity, often to negate stereotypes about that identity. For example a woman might avoid talking about being a Mum to evade being seen as less committed to her work.

Advocacy based covering –  Is where an individual avoids sticking up or speaking out for their group.  “A veteran might refrain from challenging a joke about the military, lest they be seen as overly strident”

Association based covering – This involves avoiding contact with a group we identify with  or hiding our association with the  group for fear of being discriminated against or stereotyped. 

 more widely used word in place of covering these days is the term code-switching. It was originally created to refer specifically to linguistics and how one shifts between two or more languages, mixing words together within a single conversation. Today code-switching also refers to the ways in which we adapt our behaviours and mannerisms to conform to expected standards and rules (spoken and unspoken). 

As Black women, many of us are well accustomed to covering and code-switching when we find ourselves in predominantly white spaces to ensure we fit in and are accepted by others. It is a way of surviving, a coping skill we use to blend in seamlessly in different social and professional spaces. However it can be mentally exhausting and demoralising to keep hiding away true parts of ourselves. The internal messaging can become one of “I am not enough as I am”. In psychotherapy, we refer to the rejected parts of self that we perceive as less than or no good.   

During the diversity workshop I facilitated, I wanted to have a real and open discussion about covering and to encourage this I started with my own experience. Up until nine years ago, wearing an Afro to work was an absolute no for me. As much I toyed with the idea of having my hair natural, I felt I would look unprofessional and it would be inappropriate. Hence my hair was chemically straightened or styled in a weave for many years. Looking back it wasn’t that I feared reproach or outward disapproval. But more the feeling that I could be perceived negatively by others which in turn could hinder opportunities at work. However, over the last ten years, as I journeyed in my self-discovery and authenticity, the desire to be true to myself took precedence over my need to cover. 

Although I had overcome the need to code-switch with my hair, there are aspects of my identity and  culture that I still agonise over whether to show at work. There are certain foods I would think twice about taking to work for packed lunch, for fear that the smell may be off putting to those not accustomed to traditional Nigerian food. Wearing a head wrap during zoom meetings was a big one for me. What would my middle class White peers think? This is in spite of the fact that I work in a culturally diverse, inclusive and casual dress organisation. Yet there is a part of me that wants to resist standing out from the “norm” and being different so I can assimilate well and not have any unnecessary attention drawn to me.

For many of us there is a strong feeling that we should hide certain parts of ourselves, who we truly are in spaces where the majority do not look like us.

So what is the solution? What can we do?

I don’t believe there is a right or single way of dealing with the issue of code-switching. For some it is a very unconscious practice and one may not even be aware of it. Some might see it as a necessary part of fitting in well in a professional environment with standard rules and protocols. The real question is whether or not code-switching hinders one’s ability and desire to show up as their true and authentic self.  Are you able to fully thrive at work within the limitations and barriers you find yourself, whether real perceived? Are you able to build genuine connections, understanding and trust in your work relationships? Do you fear being penalised for being true to your identity or culture? Do you find it mentally exhausting or does it cause you anxiety?

It is important to give some real thought and consideration on the likely implications of not covering or code-switching.

Find out about your organisation’s diversity and inclusion policies and whether there are any initiatives in place to encourage genuine, open discussions about issues like code-switching. Opportunities to have forums where real and honest conversations can be explored openly may be just the impetus you need to show up as your unique self.

Take little steps at a time. Choose one aspect of your identity or self that you choose to liberate and cover no more. For many years through school, university and work life I was okay with people mispronouncing my name because I felt awkward and embarrassed to correct them. Over the years, as I began to own my identity and heritage, I am now very comfortable with correcting people by saying “my name sounds like “Hobby” but without the “H” and it has one “B”. Each step to reclaiming my identity enabled me to feel more empowered to take the next step. 

Pay attention to the internal narrative you hold about yourself. If you are aware that you are covering or code-switching, and it bothers you, explore what you fear would happen if you stopped. Who am I when I am my truest self, and not covering? How do I feel about myself when I am not trying to fit in or be anyone else but me? Believing that my only motivation for straightening my hair or wearing weaves for many years was down to legitimate reasons of professionalism, it was a huge revelation when I realised that deep down I believed that in my most natural state, without my big or long hair extensions, I was ugly. It was a journey for me to learn to accept and love myself unconditionally. 

Remember, one step at a time.

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Oby Bamidele

Oby Bamidele is a psychotherapist (BACP & NCP) coach and speaker. She is passionate about helping women get unstuck, building great emotional health so that they can thrive in life.

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