Code-Switching: What is Professionalism?

I don’t listen to the suits behind the desk no more, you niggas wear suits cause you can’t dress no more.” – Kanye West (Last Call)

Recently, I learned this word a few years ago while in undergrad. Maybe the phrase has been around longer, but I couldn’t tell you. I’ve only been here for two decades and some change. But the practice has been around way before my conception.

In my experiences of code-switching, I noticed speaking in plain English wasn’t enough to get my message across. I had to change the pitch in my voice, shy my tone, and switch-out certain words for other synonyms in order to be understood.

Or worse, someone else would say the exact same thing I said, in a much more complicated syntax, and suddenly it all made sense to the larger group.

Why isn’t the English language enough to fit the criteria of professionalism? Colonialism wasn’t enough? I question the true effectiveness of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) if people have to code-switch to occupy space in corporate settings.

Professionalism seems to be a set of specific mannerisms and coded language, much like a social culture. So if the intent of DEI is to include different cultures, how can that happen if the identities of people are wiped away in the name of professionalism?

I’ve worked with many different people since the age of 14, whether or not I liked them is another story, but these people had personalities. Usually, in my lower-paying jobs. They had characteristics I could remember and sometimes enjoyed. The higher I went, the less color I seen, on skin and in character. I started to equate professionalism with monotony – boring and redundant.

The last fair wage job I had, I remember connecting with a co-worker over Tagalog in the break room because I seen this video on Twitter and she knew the language. I can’t recall the last time I experienced anything personable or cultural from someone I worked with since then. Mainly because people conceal most of their identity once they enter corporate-level jobs. If not conceal it, it’s definitely watered-down.

You know that episode of SpongeBob where he rounds out his edges to become normal? Squidward finally welcomes SpongeBob into his home once he transforms to a “normal” sponge. Get the drift?

In these environments, people have the same greetings, same disposition, same rebuttals, same mannerisms. I couldn’t name a specific character trait amongst a group of “professionals” outside of sarcasm and self-deprecation (which I guess can be considered a personality trait? You tell me).

In the world of professionalism, there is a lot of hiding. You hide your social media presence, at least refrain from mentioning or disclosing it. You even censor yourself more online than you probably would if you didn’t need to upkeep a face of “professionalism.” But are you that censored in real life?

I’m not.

More than ever before, I completely understand the depth of joining a company. In addition to access of resources, opportunities, and income, the cost of entry is your identity. Similar to a fraternity, you give up your individuality in exchange for the values of the group (whatever that may be).

I let go of this practice in 2018 and I don’t intend to return to it. If I have to leave my face at the door to get in, I don’t need to be in the room.

One thing is for certain, code-switching can do more harm than good. It gets exhausting to keep on the mask everyday and work. Also, participating in this act can cultivate an atmosphere for passive racism, such as microaggressions or derogatory remarks against any differing group of people that may be seen as “unprofessional.” The biggest x-factors are what is considered unprofessional, why, and by whom?

I understand the reasons for code-switching. I really do. Easier communication by reaching across the aisle and a smoother climb up the social-corporate ladder. But if companies have this goal to include those that are different, how can that ever be accomplished if the method to get in is to repress who you are?

The funniest thing about this post is I would code-switch all the time to get internships, interviews, and network. But now I realized getting a foot through the door means nothing once you’re assed-out.

If you show up as yourself, in your best suit (figuratively speaking), no one will expect you to come as anyone else. But if you show up as someone else, you will have to continue pretending to be that person.

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