The term code-switching originated in linguistics, referring to mixing and changing languages and speech patterns. This term continues to evolve and in daily use, I love the definition from Gene Demby, “[…] code-switching is about dialogue that spans cultures.
Recently, I had a moment in a team meeting that gave me pause. We were discussing upcoming fundraising efforts and our messaging. I had drafted a bulk of the initial structure and content, intentionally leaving room for others to collaborate and fill in gaps, as a good initiative is never the sole vision of one in my experience. Going over what needed to be finished, a seasoned fundraiser on the team noted that we must absolutely stop using language like “folx” in our fundraising materials because funders do not know what this language means.
Others in the meeting agreed and moved on. But for me this was a full stop. I lingered on this moment, trying to understand why this did not sit well with me. Was it because I could not take constructive criticism? Was it imposter syndrome, me feeling uneasy because I was caught not knowing enough about fundraising and being exposed as too radical and unprofessional? Or was it that I had stayed silent and not voiced my disagreement?
As I sat with these possibilities, they all felt like half truths. I brought up this moment of discomfort in conversations with coworkers and friends, as I tried to make sense of it for myself. After a week, I worried that being Virgo AF, that I was just hanging onto an insignificant and falsely perceived slight. Why did this bother me!
Then it clicked.
If we are asking funders to invest in our visions of racial equity, then we are also asking them to do the work of not policing our language, not asking BIPOC fundraisers to code switch, and not center funders’ whiteness.
Let’s unpack this.
Many BIPOC professionals have an all too familiar daily decision of either being their whole selves or fitting into a box that was not made for them.
The term code-switching originated in linguistics, referring to mixing and changing languages and speech patterns. This term continues to evolve and in daily use, I love the definition from Gene Demby, “[…] code-switching is about dialogue that spans cultures.” This is a broad, multicultural perspective that notes the reasons we code switch; we are trying to bridge between our own cultures and the cultures that surround us. There is nothing inherently wrong with code-switching, and it is a part of a lived experience navigating and building relationships from each of our unique and shared cultures. But, when we code switch as a result of centering whiteness or policing language so as to be viewed as “respectable” or “professional” — we should stop and think about why we feel this is necessary.
Many BIPOC professionals have an all too familiar daily decision of either being their whole selves or fitting into a box that was not made for them. That box might dictate the way you wear your hair, the way you purposely mispronounce your own name to prioritize someone else’s feelings, the way you overdress or really, being extra in any way so as to dissociate from common racial stereotypes and so many other subtle shifts — to living a full-fledged double life.
Madeleine Corich, who identifies as biracial Chinese American, is a nonprofit grant coordinator and climate justice organizer. She empathizes, saying, “Once I got the job, I had to go shopping for new clothes, and my mom was dragging me into all these stores with shirts for $80, telling me, ‘They’re paying you more so that you can dress a certain way.’ I was like, ‘But I don’t want to.’”
Her mother’s insistence on buying ‘office appropriate’ clothes won out, but Madeleine still struggles to find the line where the aesthetic she feels comfortable in also meets a standard where she looks like she belongs; or at the least, does not cause disruption for the dominant culture in her workplace.
Even in environments that urge folx bring their whole selves, is that call for authenticity really real? … When we do show up as ourselves, we might be seen as undeserving of leadership roles, perhaps as lazy or angry, or simply not competent.
“I knew that if I didn’t put some effort and intention behind changing how I show up, I couldn’t ascend to a director position,” she told me. “When I consulted a coworker on whether she thought an eyebrow piercing would work in our office culture, she took a minute, responding ‘Yes, I think that’d be okay — you couldn’t have [our director’s job] … but for a coordinator, sure.’”
And that’s a choice a lot of us are constantly navigating.
Jasmine Keith, who identifies as biracial African American, is a recent MBA graduate. She remembers a presentation she gave at the start of our predominantly white business program about her leadership style.
“I was struggling with what I wanted to disclose about my upbringing [as a biracial woman, first generation student from a low-income and single parent household] because that’s part of who I am […] and I didn’t feel like I could talk about leadership without talking about those sorts of things, but then I also felt super vulnerable, as in, how honest can I get in this presentation? And like, yeah, that exact debate like, I don’t know if I can bring my whole self to that.”
Even in environments that urge folx bring their whole selves, is that call for authenticity really real? For Jasmine and myself, two of several BIPOC graduate students in our otherwise predominantly white MBA program, it was unilaterally encouraged that students show up as their authentic selves. But, what was not a part of that conversation was how this was different or potentially not possible for BIPOC students or professionals, especially Black and Indigenous folx.
When we do show up as ourselves, we might be seen as undeserving of leadership roles, perhaps as lazy or angry, or simply not competent. As this Harvard Business Review (HBR) article by Courtney L. Mccluney, Kathrina Robotham, Serenity Lee, Richard Smith, and Myles Durkee about the costs of code-switching articulates: “Companies should consider if they are asking their Black employees to do something that they will then be punished for. Specifically, are you asking Black employees to bring their whole selves to work only if they also assimilate with dominant cultural norms?”
It’s a serious flex. And there is a cost if we choose to code switch. It’s energy and emotional labor that involves being aware of and prioritizing a dominant culture’s comfort over our own day in and day out. And there’s a cost if we choose not to, like Madeline noted, potentially not advancing in our careers or securing funding.
So, what should we do?
This isn’t on individuals to solve alone. Organizations are responsible, as are the systems we operate in. When we think from a systemic perspective, the way nonprofits operate in the U.S. lock us into a cycle of dependency with predominantly white funders. As Sidra Morgan-Montoya put it in their essay, “The nonprofit industrial complex helps the rich maintain control of their wealth — and of our movements.”
Consider your criteria for grants. Do you throw out proposals based on vernacular or grammar? Consider that the delivery is less important than the information and impact of the proposal.
That’s a pretty large issue, and I won’t dive into it here. But, I think it’s clear that organizations can do more (and then more and then more). Organizations can’t claim values if they don’t align action to practice them. If it is A-OK for BIPOC employees to not code switch, then they should not feel they have to in order to succeed in your organization or secure a grant from your foundation.
Diversity is one thing and building an inclusive workplace culture is another. Regardless of where your organization is at with diversity, implementing best practices for diversity recruiting will not result in long lasting employment without creating a culture of inclusiveness. This is where an organization can continue to put action to practice by creating space for conversation about what is happening in the world, especially right now. Talk about systemic racism, racial equity, and issues that affect BIPOC employees outside of the work environment.
Too often the dynamic in cross-racial relationships (platonic, professional, romantic, friendship, and everything else) is the person of color always has to bring up the topic of race. Alleviate this by doing some heavy lifting for your employees of color. As the HBR article puts it, “One way to strike this balance is for company leaders to address issues outside of their companies that affect Black employees’ work experiences. Inviting these conversations demonstrates that the company values Black employees beyond their individual contributions to the bottom line.”
And while you’re at it, talk to your funders and investors about these issues. Let them know they are important to your organization, your staff, your board, and your mission. Our goal as fundraisers is to build support, resources, and capacity for our mission and impact. Our goal is not to make funders feel comfortable.
Or if you’re a foundation, let your grantees know you care about racial equity and put your money behind that value. Consider your criteria for grants. Do you throw out proposals based on vernacular or grammar? Consider that the delivery is less important than the information and impact of the proposal.
And don’t let not knowing what a word means throw you off. You can always look it up.
Kaitlyn Rich (she/her) is an intrapreneur, community strategist, and analyst. She is currently based in Portland, Oregon, was raised in the Great Lakes, and her ancestors are Korean, Italian, and Polish. She believes in bridging the gap between purpose and profit for as long as we live under Capitalism. When she’s not working from home, she’s out foraging and wildcrafting in the woods, rock climbing, and giving all the belly rubs to her blue heeler pup. She can be reached at her website and blog, Kaitlynrich.com or on Instagram @kaitlynkrich.