As one of the few Black women in the corporate offices where she worked, Regina Lawless took pains to blend in. She donned conservative blazers and low-wedge heels and tucked her hair in a wig instead of wearing natural hairstyles or braids.
Echoing the speech patterns of her white colleagues, she avoided African American Vernacular English, spoke in a quieter voice and buttoned down her mannerisms. Even in casual moments around the watercooler, she constantly monitored how she carried herself and chatted about the latest episode of “Game of Thrones,” not “Insecure.”
“I was coming in as a young Black woman and I didn’t want them to think of me as unprofessional or ghetto or pick your negative stereotype of Black women,” she said. “It was my way not to have people question my competence or my professionalism.”
For many Black and Brown workers, this is as routine or familiar as breathing. Lawless was “code-switching,” meaning she changed her appearance, speech and behavior to fit in and put others at ease.
“Had I not code-switched and conformed, I would not have been seen as having leadership potential,” said Lawless, whose last corporate job was as head of diversity, equity and inclusion at Instagram.
. . .
To some extent, code-switching is a universal trait, meaning we all speak or act one way with friends and family and another with colleagues or bosses, says Myles Durkee, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Michigan who studies code-switching.
In the Indeed survey, 35% of Hispanic employees, 37% of employees who felt discriminated against at work and 35% of younger employees ages 18 to 34 said they have code-switched.
Code-switching is frequently considered a required skill for Black Americans, whether it’s a motorist adopting a more deferential tone during a traffic stop or a new employee straightening her hair.