THE CUTOFF SWITCH
My great-aunt used to tell me to “cutoff” (imagine it as one word pronounced CUT-AWF) the lights or “cuton” (CUT-AWN) the switch. I always thought it was funny the way she said that and lately, I’ve been thinking about how and whether or not I should “cutoff” my switch – my code switch.
Since my childhood of being bussed to a mostly white school then being labeled as an “other” and a baby representative of the totality of Black folks, I have valued my ability to code switch. Back then, I didn’t know what to call it so once I learned what a chameleon was, I just referred to myself as such, based on my ability to transform into whatever the white folks needed me to be. Except at that time, I just thought I was being flexible, not compromising my identity. Over time, I have learned there is a fine line.
Now that I’m far removed from elementary school, I understand code switching and no longer look at it as means to fit into a box of who white folks want me to be. Instead, I see it as a tool I’ve mastered to protect the most intimate and special parts of my Blackness from those who would disrespect and/or pilfer it or try to use it to learn more about me than I would ever allow. Switching in the workplace for me now is about guarding myself, not performing a watered-down version. And even though my reasoning has changed over the years, I have wondered if I should give it up altogether.
Lately, in my social media timelines, I’ve seen folks suggesting code switching is a bad thing. Many among that faction talk about not owing it to the dominate culture to alter ourselves, how being oneself at all times is paramount, and how we should work to normalize our cultural components instead of believing we have to somehow change ourselves to be acceptable in non-Black circles. And I believe all those points to be pertinent. I agree I shouldn’t have to alter my speech, my cadence, my use of certain culturally common terms and phrases to appease the parameters of the so-called “norm”. I believe what is common within my circles should be respected as another social norm and my turn of phrase or slang terms should be understood as part of a well-established lexicon. However, in all my agreeing, I still lean towards code switching for my aforementioned reason – to protect what’s mine.
Anyone who has ever worked with me knows I am private in the office. My conversations don’t extend past the superficial, I don’t usually lunch with coworkers unless they are folks I knew beforehand and are trusted, and it is well documented I don’t fool with potlucks. As a result, I come across as arrogant, anti-social, and intimidating. And when necessary, I can be any or all of those things, but really, my goal is to protect myself, my life, my business, my beliefs, and everything that means something to me from being infringed on by interlopers. I am polite, I sometimes do small talk, and I listen to others without judgment should they decide they want to disclose their life situations to me, but I still don’t give up myself because it’s one of the few things I have.
When I let my hair down with my people, I feel the most relaxed, the safest, and the most understood. When I know all I have to do is utter one single, “Girl…”, and my entire intention is known from that, I feel loved. When I know I can sit among my people, relax my language, and be validated, comforted, and even admonished, I am fortified. Something about taking that experience and randomly sharing it with people in my workplace who are likely to trivialize it, judge it, determine my level of professionalism by it, ask stupid questions about it, then co-opt it in a way that ruins its beauty leaves me convinced my chameleon status still very much has its place.
I know I should be all about representing my whole Black ass self in every space with boldness. And even though I feel protective of certain aspects of my Blackness, I believe I am my true Black self, even at work, because I am more than one thing. I am the sit over a bottle of wine or a glass of whiskey shit-talking, verb-bustin’, preposition at the end of a sentence using woman. I am also the quiet, selectively social, grammar nerd. Neither of these are fake personas, but different aspects of who I am given what I believe it takes to protect myself or to reveal myself, depending on the scenario. Because I believe what happens when I completely turn off that work code switch is sacred, I am of the mind I’m going to keep that switch CUT-AWN.