Conforming to ‘whiteness:’ The harms of code-switching

The feeling of code-switching, for many students, is like putting on a mask to hide themselves and put on a performance for others. Graphic by Elizabeth Hein


Many people have been led to believe that code-switching is only a switch in dialect depending on the situation one is in, but it expands more to body language and habits. To many, it’s also a survival tactic meant to give POC ease in changing environments. 

From a young age, children of color have to learn how to behave in schools in order to not be treated differently from their white peers. Having something so simple as an accent or different food is a reminder to perform in front of their white peers.  

Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop after growing up. 

As these children grow up, they continue to be sorted into boxes of stereotypes regarding their cultures. These stereotypes often demonize these children, and they are forced to act in a way that could either be drastically or slightly different from their actual personality. 

Corey Reed, assistant professor of philosophy and affiliate faculty of race, gender and sexuality studies, passionately speaks on the struggles of being forced to change for the majority. 

“Those who are marginalized have a really murky and complex sense of self,” Reed said. “It is often associated with trying to defend oneself in different contexts and trying to beat assumptions before they come. I have often had to catch myself, and understand that I am not relaxed when I am code-switching.” 

Forcing oneself to act a certain way in front of others is draining and creates more stress. Many times, people lose a large sense of themselves in the process and struggle to understand who they actually are when they are relaxed. 

When being surrounded by communities that are not one’s own for a long period of time — especially “professional” communities — those aspects of one’s personality feel like a burden. 

Being a POC student in college is challenging, to say the least. It means having to conform to the majority and forcing yourself to hide certain parts of who you are. 

It becomes a lot more difficult when attending a predominantly white institution like Butler, more so when those students of color are from communities where they are the majority. This is because they don’t know how to fit into a place they no longer belong. The stress that comes with learning that you are only a small percentage of the population is terrifying. 

These are challenges that those who are not POC will not understand. 

While we understand that Butler is generally not outright bigoted, that fear lingers, and it decides many choices one makes. This can vary from entering a college building to speaking up in class, but also goes farther than that. 

Having to navigate your conversations with professors and learning to lessen your “weird” pronunciations in order to not look stupid is disheartening, even more so when you are so used to others understanding you. 

While this may not be the case for every student of color, there is still the necessity to change who you are in order to stay out of danger or to simply not be thought of as different. 

“I don’t think it would be safe for me, as a Black man, to completely fold into my relaxed self and exist in my natural ways in the different arenas that I live in,” Reed said. “If I were to totally take the mask off, I think some people would fear [the relaxed me], some people would be curious by [me], other people would be appalled. And I don’t know if I would have gotten to this seat had I not had some of those mechanisms in place.” 

Like Reed, I believed for a long time that it would not be safe for me to be my relaxed self. Of course, I can’t always relax and have to put on the act again, but I ended up finding a space on campus where I can: that being the Diversity Center (DC). 

The DC and Hub for Black Affairs and Community Engagement have been set in place for students of color to rest and to be their most relaxed and authentic selves. They’re places students do not need to worry about being different because it is a safe space. 

Not only are students able to let their guard down, but they can learn from other people in other communities. There is no need to change for the majority. 

While a handful of white students may not agree with having the DC or completely forget about it, it serves those students who may not feel they are fully welcome around campus. 

Having this space builds the groundwork for a more diverse institution where students feel recognized, respected and represented. 

Not only are these places a safe space, they’re a place for students who do not know about these different cultural communities to learn about others and understand their differences. 

Although some people may not understand these communities, there are opportunities that open up that understanding and allow them to foster bigger connections. It helps both sides of the coin learn to have respect for each other. 

Alexis Newell, the project specialist for the Hub for Black Affairs and Community Engagement, expresses the necessity for these safe spaces and how other students may view these spaces. 

“We have [white] students where this is their first time interacting with a student of color,” Newell said. “Knowing all the different backgrounds that are coming in here might be a learning opportunity.” 

While it may be beneficial to code-switch in professional settings, the risk of losing a large part of one’s identity is drastic. It may help open up doors for POC, but it puts self-expression and one’s culture at risk of being erased. 

“I think code-switching can lead to respectability,” Newell said. “It’s just a tool to try to get ahead. It’s not meant to represent the fullness of who you are. It’s just a matter of not losing your identity.” 

Coming to Butler, I was reminded by my family that I was in the best school in Indiana, and I had to act like it. This basically meant I had to act “white” and try to fit their standards. 

This pressure felt like a burden, and I often questioned how I behaved in front of my white peers.  I wanted to make sure I wasn’t giving away too much that would label me an outsider. 

The constant anxiety made me exhausted — I wanted to show others who I actually was and who I wanted to be around. It felt impossible to break out of what I had started. 

Dominique White, a first-year art + design student, describes the need to fit into the white majority. 

“If you’re on the white-passing side, you still identify with your certain culture,” White said. “You think to just play the role with them, to make [yourself] more appealing to a white audience.” 

To many POC, code-switching is simply an act.  It is a means to fit in, even if one may not want to. 

 Although we have moved to DEI work in institutions and the acceptance of other cultures and backgrounds, there is still a lot of work to get rid of the white standard. 

Having to put away a part of your identity is exhausting and difficult for many.  It’s especially difficult when they have to hide the part of their identity they are most proud of, and that brings them and their families joy. 

We need to become more aware of the hurt we are causing communities and allow people to be their true selves without being discriminated against or disapproved of.


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