A primary tactic Black Americans use to get ahead professionally is code-switching — adjusting speech, dress and mannerisms to make non-blacks more comfortable in the workplace. This can be as small as eliminating vernacular or as big as hiding textured hair or using a different name. Often, the exchange for this cultural suppression is a seat at the table of corporate America.
This phenomenon is played out in HBO’s Insecure when Molly encourages a loud and enthusiastic new intern at her law firm to code switch. The intern, named Rashida, resists, and ultimately faces discipline by her bosses.
After this election, where the majority of white men and women voted for Donald Trump’s virulent and unrepentant racism, some of us have been left to wonder whether the corporate inroads we’ve made are actually creating meaningful change. Or, less broadly, if they’re even changing the way our co-workers see us as individuals.
In a 1993 interview with Charlie Rose, Toni Morrison touched on this when asked about Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas who, some might argue, has gone beyond the point of code switching and into a plain disdain for Black culture.
Morrison: Listen there’s a kind of process of rescue in which someone who has had dumped on him all of the terrible things that racism can bring about, and who makes an effort to deal with it and even he said you know if you follow through on what happens to you as a black person you either have to subscribe to violence or profit. Profit. Meaning if you’re gon make it in the world, in the white world, then you better give it up.
Rose: Your choice is either violence or profit
Morrison: Profit meaning upward mobility, conservative, or not even conservative but certainly you’re not going to emphasize your ethnicityn.
Rose: But you believe in upward mobility, right?
Morrison: Of course, absolutely. But I’m not going to give up one drop of melanin to get there. I’m not going to erase my race or my gender to get there. I want all of it. I deserve all of it, and we all do. I don’t want to be blanded, bleached out in order to participate in this country and walk any hall of power or corridor that I want to.
24 years ago and still a relevant discussion today.