Education and Skills

Code-switching: 4 Forum voices on what it is – and why we need to talk about it

Race system racism education language

48% of Black college graduates in America felt the need to change how they talk around people of other races. Image: Unsplash/Nqobile Vundla

Kate Whiting
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Education, Gender and Work

  • Half of Black college graduates in the US ‘code-switch’ to fit in with people of other races.
  • Altering speech, behaviour and appearance to succeed can lead to burnout.
  • But leaders can create more inclusive workplaces with diversity training at all levels and employee resource groups, providing safe spaces for people to be themselves.

Systemic racism means “code-switching” – changing speech, behaviour and even appearance – often becomes second nature for people of colour to survive and succeed in a white working world.

Last year, Pew Research found 48% of Black college graduates in America felt the need to change how they talk around people of other races.

Code-switching can impact mental health, leading to burnout from the “exhausting and dispiriting” process of trying to fit in, according to researchers writing in Harvard Business Review.

And it can have a financial cost too, with accent coaches helping people avoid discrimination in the workplace.

Black college graduates grads talk race

What is code-switching?

The concept originated in linguistics to describe the process of “shifting from one linguistic code (a language or dialect) to another, depending on the social context or conversational setting”. Its meaning has broadened to include all forms of communication and expression.

It’s the premise of the 2018 film Sorry to Bother You, which helped bring the concept back into America’s racial discourse. The protagonist struggles to make sales in his new job as a telemarketer, until his Black colleague suggests: “Use your white voice.”

But it goes beyond career success. Writing about the film two years before the killing of George Floyd, New York-based writer AT Williams said: “When Black people can be killed for simply being themselves, code-switching presents itself as a form of self-protection.”


So how can we create a working environment – and a world – where everyone can be their authentic selves?

Here, the World Economic Forum’s Diversity Lead, Adwoa Bagalini, and three other Forum voices share their experiences and insights.

What does code-switching mean to you?

Adwoa Bagalini: It’s trying to mirror the audience you’re facing to make sure you’ll be understood, but also translating your ideas and yourself into a mode that is perceived to be a little bit more digestible. There are few Black people who don't spend their entire lives just studying whiteness, and trying to adapt to a certain white way of being in the world and trying to understand what it means to interact with white people, to communicate with them and be accepted. The reverse rarely happens.

Joseph Losavio, Specialist – Cities, Infrastructure and Urban Services: I think it really means that you just act a certain way with your Black friends, or friends of colour, than you do at work, or in broader society. It just makes your life a lot easier. It's deemed more professional, and more appropriate for the space. Most of my life, I've been in pretty white spaces, so you just get used to it after a while. It's not even something you become aware of until somebody in the white space makes a comment on it. So many Black people are used to doing it, they don't even really talk about how they do it. It's just a thing you do to navigate the world.

Sarah Shakour, Marketing Communications, Forum Foundations: You’re taking out your culture or your personality and adapting to the environment you might be put in. It’s a little bit like imposter syndrome. I definitely get a lot of anxiety when I talk and present even though I know that I know it, I just still feel like I'm not the right person to know it. I also feel like I'm supposed to be a native English speaker – which I am, I’m American – but then you still feel like you don't articulate things well enough, or you don't communicate things clearly. So much thought and energy goes into presenting myself this way.

Jordynn McKnight, Designer: It means having to repress a part of yourself – be that the way you talk, or the way you appear, or the way you style your hair – so that people treat you at the same level as they do others. It comes with having a job and being in spaces where you're the only person like you there, and where you need to, essentially in other people’s eyes, build yourself up to that level, rather than everyone coming to an equal level and coming as they are.

What have been your experiences of code-switching?

Bagalini: I grew up in Ghana, which used to be a British colony, so in school we were not allowed to speak our native languages, we could only speak English. At home with my mother, I would speak our mother tongue, and at school, I immediately code-switched into English. I went to the US for college and very quickly realized that what I thought I was speaking, which was English, was not very understandable to people around me because I had a certain accent. That was my second experience of code-switching, trying to understand the language patterns that Americans use, and then to mirror them so they could understand what I was saying. In my first couple of years, I was unable to speak, because I got so many people asking me what I was saying, it really diminished my confidence. I was constantly having to repeat things, even pronounce my name. I had a huge breakthrough in college, because Black women were starting to rediscover their natural hair. I stopped using chemical relaxer, cut off my hair and started growing it as it came out of my head. Since coming to Europe, I’ve become fluent in French and Italian – and I love that about myself, that I can speak all these different languages and sound different in all of them.

Losavio: My mom was a news anchor [in the US] growing up. And so she had to have a very different persona when she was on TV, of course, because you don't want to scare people by being too urban. And it's really interesting to see, when the cameras come off, the way they talk normally is different. I think every news person has this, the “news voice”. But I think it's a much starker difference when you're a person of colour. So I thought it was very natural, just what everybody did when they went to work. When you're a kid, you think everybody’s mom’s a news anchor. Sometimes she goes back to host a special event, and I can tell when she’s annoyed talking to someone on TV, it's just an ever-so-slight change. I'm just like, “That was that real one”. You can tell she’s holding it in, she's on the verge… The stereotype that [Black people] are angry and can’t control emotion is heaviest on women. Something I used to get all the time growing up was people saying – and thinking it was a compliment – “I don't even think of you as Black”.

McKnight: There are a couple of things that Black children or people of colour are taught to do to survive and succeed – and code-switching is one of those things. It can involve making sure you work harder than everyone around you, times three. And making sure you are dressed for the part – and if you're overdressed, that's even better. So the idea is your 130% will equal up to maybe 90%, right? You're always going to be behind, so just overdo it in every aspect. It obviously has a lot of ramifications from mental health to just existing on a day-to-day basis. You will hear a lot about police brutality right now. And so you’re taught how to act in those situations. So if you are dealing with a leader or a person of authority, to really use your, “Yes ma’am”, “No sir” type of speaking and make sure that you’re really stressing the gap in authority, that you are very much below this person. And so code-switching can be pulling yourself up, but it also can be pushing yourself down, depending on the situation.

Shakour: My dad is African from Sudan, my mother is South Asian, from Sri Lanka, so I just called myself “other”. I was a product of the environment that I grew up in. I would switch into this different personality, when I was with my white friends or my Black friends. And then because my dad is Sudanese, I would also switch when I was around Muslim and Arab people. I would pretend I knew some Arabic, that I was more religious, I would dress a certain way to be less judged. I felt like I had to show I was a certain way, depending on the group that I was hanging out with. I still do that sometimes.

What can employers and colleagues do to create a more inclusive workplace?

Bagalini: There’s an unacknowledged bias against people with accents – and a common expectation of how somebody has to sound, usually Anglo-Saxon, to be authoritative as an expert. As an employer, look at who you're sending out in the world to represent you, see if they all sound the same. Because really what you're saying is that these are the people that I believe are best fit to be my ambassadors and they all sound and look a certain way. If you do have people within your organization who sound different, you should feel perfectly comfortable sending them out to speak on your behalf, because that's also the image you’re portraying to the world. I feel like many people don't do that and it continues the cycle because the less you see yourself out there being given a platform to speak, the less comfortable you are that your authentic self will be accepted as somebody who is authoritative.

McKnight: I think it's important for employers to come to this issue, and all issues in this matter, with empathetic leadership. So take the time to actually listen to people and implement what they’re saying, rather than taking performative actions. A little bit of humbleness is needed, because in many workplaces, ego is really guiding how people act. And it can block you from making changes that affect people, or just being able to actively listen. Have humble conversations and be vulnerable – come into a conversation knowing that you’re not going to get everything right. Diversity training for all employees, senior leadership, founders and CEOs sounds very simple, but it's not really something that people are doing. They'll tack it on and say we'll do this for new employees, but they're not doing it for their managers or CEO. And that's where those problems lie because a lot of companies are top down.

Losavio: Listening is important. And not taking the anger personally. It can be frustrating when you feel like you've got to find a way to have these conversations in a way that people don't feel blamed. Taking the frustration that people have felt for generations is just something you have to do and then build from there. I think it's a question that we're all kind of grappling with right now: how do we really talk about this? How do we figure out the way forward? Something that really helps at the Forum is our employee resource groups. Before we had one, I thought they were just HR box-checking. But it's been so helpful just to be able to talk freely with other people. And of course, that's just how you build power and influence in an organization, just to have a particular group that gets together and has common goals and can say this isn't one individual who's complaining about X, a group of us that have seen this. And maybe you need to listen.

Shakour: I don't think anyone will ever stop code-switching the moment they come to the office. No one will ever trust their organization to allow them to be 100% their full self – and I don’t think that’s just limited to people of colour. California was one of the first US states to say that people could not be fired, let go or punished for coming in with their natural hair, the CROWN Act, which is huge. But diversity training is vital because there are so many people who want to touch braids or curls, or ask if it’s your natural hair, and they don’t realize these are microaggressions. If there’s a Black community or people of colour community group, people shouldn’t be offended by it. It’s just a safe space where we can truly be our authentic selves and have authentic conversations.

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