2023 Equity Challenge Day 17: An Introduction to Code-Switching and Creating Space for All to Show Up as Their Authentic Selves

Believe in the power of young people. We are committed to harnessing one of the most powerful forces for positive change at work in the world today.

City Year Values

Code-switching – a term coined by sociolinguist Einar Haugen – is defined as the ability to switch between languages in a single conversation. Code-switching is something we all do to some degree. For example, speaking more casually to friends at a gathering than you would while giving an in-office presentation. 

But for people of color, code-switching is much more complex and nuanced. Some argue that the ability to do it well is a prerequisite for a certain level of success, while history demonstrates effective code-switching can mean the difference between life and death.

A 2019 study conducted by the Pew Research Center found that four in 10 Black and Hispanic adults often feel the need to change the way they talk around others of different races and ethnicities, especially non-Hispanic whites. Black college graduates under the age of 50 are the most affected, with 53% feeling the need to switch how they express themselves when they are among people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. 

University of Michigan Associate Professor Myles Durkee, who has studied code-switching, calls it a double-edged sword where there are “benefits and advantages but also serious costs and consequences.”  

During police interactions, for example, code-switching is sometimes used by Black men who are consistently, incorrectly perceived as larger and more threatening than white men. While demoralizing for many, it’s often resorted to as a tactic to alleviate officer anxiety – the roots of which can be traced back to the days of chattel slavery. 

In the workplace, code-switching frequently takes the form of changes in tone of voice as depicted in the surrealist comedy “Sorry to Bother You.”  But code-switching is much deeper than the way a person speaks. It can also reflect on a person’s entire behavioral profile – from their hair style to clothing choices and the overall way people carry themselves.

Constantly focusing on changing oneself to make others feel more comfortable is mentally and emotionally taxing. Those who tend to code-switch more frequently report more workplace fatigue and burnout because they must consistently show up as a different person – masking the cultural assets and traits they value and appreciate internally but realize aren’t valued in their workplace. 

So, what can we do to create space for marginalized people to feel like they can show up as their authentic selves?

In the workplace, it starts with centering diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) and elevating people of color to leadership positions where they can begin to dictate what the organization’s culture looks like.

Create an environment that celebrates authentic forms of self-expression above those rooted in the traditions of the dominant caste. Resource groups are also a good way to enhance cultural awareness and foster more inclusive workspaces. Tomorrow’s challenge will focus more on how to create these types of spaces.

For those who find themselves needing to code-switch, it can help to understand that it exists on a spectrum. Make deliberate choices about changes you’re willing to make to “fit in” without sacrificing your own comfort. Measure those choices against your absolute identity – the things that define you as a person and bring you comfort and joy. Seek support when needed and surround yourself with people willing to honor your authenticity.  

Today, we hope that you spend time with our video, Stories of Code-Switching. For more information on code-switching see the resources below.  



Reflect And Share

  1. After today’s challenge, what is top of mind for you?  
  2. Have you ever had a personal experience with code-switching? How did it make you feel? 
  3. How do you think code-switching has evolved over time? Is it more relevant or less relevant today? 


Start the conversation. Send the tweet. Share your story. Make the Facebook post. Sharing what you learn and experience with your family, friends, and co-workers is the first step toward allyship.

Join thousands in conversation by using hastag #EquityChallenge or #TakeTheEC23