The Surprising Benefits of Codeswitching | Josh Rutherford

This blog was supposed to have a different title.

Something akin to “The Perils of Codeswitching.” A title recently inspired by a LinkedIn post I had read (more on that later) and more distantly influenced by my upbringing.

Then I started a new book. I re-examined my perspective. And I decided on a different path, leading to this blog’s current moniker.

The irony of the situation is not lost on me. Even when writing about codeswitching, I find myself codeswitching.

Codeswitching – broadly speaking, altering one’s speech or behavior to fit in to a particular situation or environment – carries negative connotations, to say the least. Enter the term into the search engines of Google, YouTube, Instagram, or any social media site, and the results bemoan the adverse consequences of adapting to fit in. And in an era when self-help and psychology converge to agree that authenticity of self should trump any inclination to assimilate, who am I to argue?

In keeping to my true self – my codeswitching self – argue I must.

Let’s rewind to the inspiration of this blog’s original title and theme. A few months back, I stumbled across a LinkedIn comment in response to an article on minorities and codeswitching. The author, himself a BIPOC, penned an argument on the dangers of codeswitching. He admonished any minority who advanced a changed version of themselves, especially in a business environment. He ended his post with the staunch position that all one needed to do to succeed was act “professional.”

His trivialization of codeswitching angered me. But I dared not reply in the thread. After all, the writer, besides being a BIPOC himself, was an archetypical model minority – a graduate of a military institute, a business executive, and a well-spoken influencer. Comment after comment that followed his post (which, I should note, came from primarily white professionals) echoed his sentiment of dismissing racial trauma and homogenizing professional behavior. My objection, or anyone else’s for that matter, would have been lost in a sea of conformity.

That is not to say I do not understand the public response to codeswitching. I get it. After all, I lived it.

I am mixed. I am the product of Caucasian, Mexican, and Filipino heritage. My surname is Scottish in origin but often those I meet expect me to speak Spanish or another language as my native tongue (and go on express their disapproval or disappointment when I reveal otherwise). Everyone else in my family either identifies with a single racial category or can pass as white and thus avoid the colorism I’ve experienced.

In other words, though I grew up the product of different worlds, few in my family could empathize with the struggles I had concerning my racial identity.

So, I codeswitched.

I acted differently accordingly to my surroundings. Though not fluent in Spanish, with my Mexican relatives, I would focus on points of shared interest I could easily converse about, like food or family history. With my white relatives, another cadence ensued, again centered on commonalities. I behaved like they did. I used different phrases with specific people. Those codeswitching tendencies continued in school as well as in social circles and, later in life, in my work environments.

Few people picked up on this, for one person who knew me in one environment would not necessarily witness how I acted in a different setting. That is not to say my struggle to adapt did not catch up with me at times. For example, growing up, I had a speech impediment. As a result, in early adolescence, I was prescribed speech therapy – I had to relearn how to talk so as to reduce my slurring and correct my mispronunciations. Sounds straightforward enough, right? The byproduct of that training is that I often spoke too well, or to put it differently, my speech was too by-the-book, too formal. I’ve often been shamed for it. While in my thirties, one manager even threatened to put me on a performance improvement plan, having called me out for the way I speak, which they labeled as too rigid.

This lifelong struggle towards acceptance is easy enough to pity, sympathize with, or reject and dismiss outright through some random social media post. And in seeing the world’s reaction, those of us who codeswitch harbor a secret shame. As they say, we suffer in silence.

As a mixed-race person, I gave in to such inclinations of self-pity. When I codeswitched, I felt ashamed of my actions to assimilate. For years on end. Decades, even. Then, like I said, I read a book.

Range by David Epstein dispels the intuitive notion that professional or athletic excellence results from early dedication and specialized focus; it advocates, with science on its side, for the generalized tinkering that takes a lifetime to acquire. A reader could easily relegate Epstein’s lessons to the areas of career advice or sports psychology. However, in reflecting on this masterwork, I could not help but draw parallels between the areas he studied and my multiracial experience.   

And in doing so, I challenged myself to view my codeswitching from a different perspective.

Society has cast codeswitching in a negative light. It’s inauthentic. Damaging. Dishonest. That can be true. But such absolutes tell only part of the story.

Think of a survival expert. If a survivalist started their training in the jungle, then had to adapt their behavior and skillset upon finding themselves in the desert, it would seem ludicrous to label their efforts to survive as damaging or inconsistent or inauthentic.

And yet, for BIPOC, including those who are mixed, those are the stigmas we face.

Rather than casting shade on codeswitching, a new view of this tendency is needed. We must abandon the idea that codeswitching is inauthentic because it robs people of acting as their one true selves. For mixed people such as myself – or dare I say, anyone who finds themselves adapting to their environment – codeswitching is an authentic mode of self-discovery. It is an expression of our deepest layers, which defy singularity.

Codeswitching as a means to find oneself can lead to increased awareness and empathy. Those who are homogenous in their upbringing may not experience diversity until much later in life. As a mixed person, I was exposed to diversity from a very early age. While I did not understand it at the time, my experiences deepened my sense of curiosity, planted the seeds of empathy, and set me on the path to becoming a more accepting, inclusive individual. It would be trite to assume that my adaptive behavior as a child stemmed only from insecurity or doubt; rather, I wanted to discover the world and my place in it. I sought to experiment with my behavior, to seek out, to embrace the trials and errors. Codeswitching was merely one method of many I employed to do that. One of the many quotes from Range helps to contextualize this point: “‘To him who observes them from afar,’ said Spanish Nobel laureate Santiago Ramón y Cajal, the father of modern neuroscience, ‘it appears as though they are scattering and dissipating their energies, while in reality they are channeling and strengthening them.’”

Strength. Not often a word associated with codeswitching. I would add others: determination, self-awareness, and grit.

It’s a slippery slope. Without intention and insight, codeswitching can rob oneself of representation and voice, leading to damaging tendencies that persist. With care and curiosity though, coupled with an allowance for self-discovery, codeswitching can evolve into something more . . . A tool to be used lightly, without shame, a reflection of the multiplicity and deeper layers that comprise our shared existence.

What do you think of my observations? What have your experiences with codeswitching been? I would love to hear from you in the comments below!

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