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McCluney Talks Racial Code-Switching

Racial code-switching occurs not just in the workplace, but also in the job application process, according to Courtney McCluney, founder and principal of Equi-Well Partners.

In one of her colleague’s studies, McCluney said Black and Asian job applicants changed their names and resumes to sound “more white.”

“What they found is that by changing their name or ‘whitening’ their resume, they were twice as likely to receive a call back,” McCluney said.

McCluney delivered a virtual presentation on racial code-switching—the practice of adjusting one’s behavior around people of a different race—in an event hosted by Boston College’s Center for Work and Family on Oct. 20.

Racial code-switching is not just a behavior—it is also a strategy, according to McCluney.

“It’s used as a way to survive or navigate interracial situations through your interactions,” she said.

McCluney said people adjust their speech, expressions, and mannerisms for a specific purpose when code-switching, usually to make people from a different race more comfortable.

“Typically, the reason why you want to make this other person comfortable within this interaction or situation is so that you can receive something in return, whether that’s fair treatment on the service opportunities or even sometimes safety,” she said.

According to McCluney, racial code-switching results from years of stereotyping in the workplace, which drives the forceful and sometimes traumatic assimilation of people of color.

“Switching is not something that is usually taught, and it’s a socialization tool that has become ingrained over time and for lots of people,” McCluney said. “People add certain mannerisms that are tied to another culture’s practices, such as a different tone and cadence of your speech.”

While all identity groups struggle with code-switching, McCluney said racial minorities suffer from it in a more severe way. Referring back to her colleague’s study, McCluney explained that racial minorities are less likely to get hired for the same job as white applicants.

Once in the workplace, McCluney said many people of color feel the pressure to assimilate. Regardless of their ability to assimilate into the workplace, colleagues may still use code-switching to interact with them, she said.

“If people see a Black person, for instance, pursuing an interest in things like golf or any sort of leisure activity [that] is primarily associated with white people rather than a stereotype of Black people, this one individual person is seen as an exception to that stereotype,” McCluney said.

Code-switching not only contributes to the perpetuation of negative stereotypes, McCluney said, but it also has a large impact on mental health.

“Mitigating code-switching … is the job on top of your job—managing how to speak and present yourself can be quite taxing mentally,” she said.

McCluney said one example of code-switching in the workplace is when Black women are forced to change their hairstyles to adhere to the company dress code. This, McCluney said, is a distinct marker of inclusivity in the workplace.

“There was a new study that has been … linking the uterine cancer rates to the use of chemical relaxers, which a lot of Black people use to straighten their hair,” McCluney said. “But there’s also the financial and health costs associated with this code switching. It is not cheap for Black women to change their hair.”

It is McCluney’s hope that her research and consultations with corporations will help set “guardrails” that steer them toward creating a safer space for all workers.

“So my hope and desire is that these guardrails will lead to a more humane-focused, more equity-focused, [and] more wellness-focused workplace, so that way all people can have a broader range of acceptable behaviors at work,” she said.

October 24, 2022