When Danielle Vinales, a 24-year-old university employee working in the US state of Virginia, transitioned to remote work in March, she noticed something striking about herself: she talked with her hands.
Seeing herself on video-conferencing calls, the Miami native became aware of how her speech and actions made her stand out as distinctly Latina – especially in contrast to her white colleagues. Though she had worked at the university for two years, she was suddenly self-conscious of her mannerisms and her Southern Florida accent in a way she hadn't been before. Whenever she would see her hands go up in her tiny Zoom window, it would be a visual reminder to tone it down. Vinales consciously decided to limit her hand gestures around her white colleagues.
What Vinales did is an example of ‘code-switching’. The term, coined in the 1950s, was originally intended to describe the way bilingual individuals switched between languages and corresponding identities. In the 1990s, code-switching became part of a national discourse in the US when a school board in California recognised the use of AAVE (African American Vernacular English) by African-American school children so it could apply for more funding to help them. It has since evolved to refer to the way (often marginalised) people adjust and adapt their behaviour, appearance and language to avoid highlighting negative stereotypes in school and work environments. In particular, individuals of all stripes tend to conform to corporate culture – consciously or not – which, to generalise, is systemically white.
Conforming may mean putting on a persona that’s more ‘compatible’ with the environment – more likable or relatable, and thus more likely to succeed. For people of colour, code-switching is a means of professional (and sometimes personal) survival. Though this kind of code-switching is often second nature, it can lead to emotional exhaustion and burnout.
Covid-19 has changed the way nearly everyone works, which means that code-switching is also evolving. People of colour can no longer depend on a physical office to trigger the need to code-switch, and the use of video conferencing has blurred the border between ‘private’ or ‘office’ spaces. In addition, a year of world events that ignited discussions around social justice – which has had a disproportionate impact on people of colour at work – has added more complication to code-switching.
As a result, many people of colour are seeing code-switching in an entirely new light.