Panelists Warn Students About Code Switching at ‘Speaking of Justice’ Event

During last Thursday’s “Code Switching: Style, Expression, or Survival?”, the fifth event of the “Speaking of Justice” series, speakers warned viewers, especially students, against code switching in ways that will significantly diminish their cultural identity. They said that significantly diminishing oneself hinders success rather than promoting it.

“If showing up as my full self makes you uncomfortable, and as a result I’m not giving you everything that I can, is that success?” said Hunter College professor and journalist Karen Hunter in reference to code switching that can occur in the workplace. “If I’m worried about my hair or my diction, are we really building an environment for all of us to succeed?” she said. 

Code switching is when someone changes their language, attire, behavior or other ways they culturally express themselves so that they will be accepted in a specific environment, make others feel comfortable, or have an easier time moving up the ranks in society. 

During the breakout room sessions from previous “Speaking of Justice” events, code switching became a prevailing topic of conversation. Hunter College’s president Jennifer Raab said that upon noticing this, the administration felt the topic deserved a larger and more detailed discussion.

According to Hunter’s 2019 Factbook, undergraduate degree-seeking students altogether spoke 95 languages last year. They also identified their families as originating from 153 countries. The speakers wanted students to know that they must embrace their cultural heritage and unique experience because there is value in it that will contribute to their success. 

Aside from Hunter, who moderated the discussion, the other panelists in the discussion were lifestyle and branding coach Harriette Cole and Hunter College 2017 graduate and Schwarzman Scholar Joy Nuga. Cole added that code switching can be beneficial when done correctly and at the right time.

Karen Hunter (left), Harriette Cole (right), and Joy Nuga (center) discussed code switching at the most recent event in the Roosevelt House series.

“Sometimes, it is very strategic,” said Cole, founder and CEO of Dreamleapers, a career coaching organization. For example, Cole said she coaches people with heavy accents on speaking slowly and clearly enough so that they can communicate effectively in the workplace.

However, Cole does not want anyone to completely lose their accent and thus lose part of their identity. She and the other panelists said that it is unprofitable for a person to perpetuate a false image of themselves. They emphasized that real success lies in embracing all the things that make them who they are. 

“We win when we are our authentic selves,” Cole said.

In the past few weeks, the “Speaking of Justice” series has covered protest movements, controversial monuments and symbols, health care and other topics as they relate to racial equity. People can view the previous events on the Roosevelt House’s Facebook page and the Roosevelt House’s YouTube channel.   

The “Speaking of Justice” series is currently on hiatus and will return in the fall semester. Future events will continue to be held via Zoom, livestreamed on Facebook and uploaded to YouTube. In the meantime, people can follow the Roosevelt House’s social media accounts to find out when the series resumes. Hunter’s administration will also continue to notify students and faculty of these events via email. 

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