Code-Switching: What’s at Stake?

“She talks like she’s white.” 

What exactly does that mean?

Is it possible to feel close to someone of a different or more privileged race than you, even if you have to enact the “white switch?” 

How much of our energy is spent negotiating ‘brown girl issues’ with the majority white culture?

Do we lose part of ourselves during that negotiation of identity?

Why do we sometimes feel guilty when we code-switch, especially when interacting with some of our white friends?

For some, if it isn’t guilt, it’s discomfort, as we silence parts of our identity when socializing. A part of us wonders why we should have to make the communal perspective smaller, easier somehow, for our peers.

In some cases, however, one might argue that it’s necessary to code-switch to be able to connect at all.

And in the instance of an interracial relationship, how do we de-colonize our interaction with one another? Is that kind of connection possible?

Is the act of suppressing parts of identity an act of betrayal to ourselves? Can we override thousands of years of power dynamics at play in our relationships?

I know that other publications (such as this one) have focused on rather prescriptive methods to ‘de-colonize your relationship,’ but I think there is more that we need to talk about, as brown women, when it comes to code-switching and de-colonizing than simplified rules about dating.

Rather than looking at relationships — of any kind — prescriptively, we should talk about what makes us uncomfortable about conforming our identities to the majority’s standards in the first place, and how giving up or asserting certain parts of our identity enables us to be understood and respected for who we are completely, in friendships and relationships. 

A number of my female friends of color have stated that they don’t feel close to many white people, because in their experience, white people do not acknowledge their own privilege. It is hard for their white peers to understand WOC’s (women of color) experience, even as particularly privileged WOC acknowledge their own socioeconomic privilege and education.

As one friend poignantly put it, “They don’t understand why being called ‘sassy’ is a microaggression or how wearing my hair in its natural state can be interpreted as a revolutionary act. They don’t understand that in trying to assure me I am just like them, they are effectively erasing my unique challenge of navigating the world as a black woman. ”

Indeed, whites often don’t understand the burden that minority women have in white heteronormative situations (or, more simply stated, in most social situations) to ‘represent’ for their race or to be ‘strong’ in the face of adversity.

For the most part, it is difficult for white peers to acknowledge or even understand that they benefit from the system of white supremacy to the detriment of marginalized communities.

That is the crux of the disconnect, the divide that can make it difficult to forge closeness with white peers.

And that code-switching seems even more like a favor, another extra effort we make to make their living easy, that sadly perpetuates the difficulty of our difference.

Does that mean that code-switching is necessary to forge any kind of connection between POC (people of color) and whites, between WOC and white men?

Will we never be able to truly connect with them?

Not entirely.

It’s no mystery to us brown girls (blogging) that quieting certain parts of our identity means relinquishing some of our agency — we’ve learned to survive in a postcolonial world by conforming to the majority culture. Turning certain parts of our identity on and off is necessary, and we naturally seek relationships where we have to turn less of it off than in others.

But it isn’t always with the majority culture that we code-switch. 

There are things others won’t ever understand, even if they are the same ethnicity, and in some cases, even if they are the same gender. Issues of class and gender separate us in society in ways that racial phenotype cannot.  We often quiet our ‘too liberal’ selves with elder generations; we also often must ignore some of the microaggressions committed against us women by men of our own race or ethnicity.

Perhaps the key to connection, despite the necessity of code-switching, is that the other person understands that this is our journey and that in their position of privilege, they don’t negotiate between nearly as many identity compartments as we do.

I coin these ‘identity compartments’ because we all hold identifiers as compartments, but they are more multi-faceted depending on how much we differ from the majority white male-dominated culture. 

In my case, I mean: Indian. American. Indian-American. Female. Indian-American female. American female. Indian female. Hindu female. Hindu American female. Hindu. Spiritual-agnostic-Hindu female. The combinations are endless and exhausting to consider, let alone to untangle in all their distinguishing nuances.

And yet, in addition to those, we learn to adapt to the majority’s ‘compartment’ of sorts, the singular one, at least in terms of race, ethnicity, and in many cases, gender — a much simpler lens through which many of our white peers are able to see the world, a lens through which the power structure is run, from top-down.

So is it ever possible to feel completely understood, particularly with those privileged enough to exist in a one-compartment culture? Very rarely will we only interact with people exactly like us, who negotiate the same exact set of identity-compartments, who face the same set of oppression structures.

At the end of the day, we’ll never feel 100% completely connected to anyone, on any rubric of identity. But understanding what’s at stake in code-switching involves deciphering what’s most important to us in feeling understood.  That in and of itself is an individual process — a process in which we must ask ourselves: what are we willing to give up?

What is the most important part of us, that which we can’t ignore when we feel the most like ourselves?

And who can we trust to honor that part of ourselves that makes us, albeit in chunks of hyphenated identity that we have to piece together, feel the most whole?

Those aren’t easy questions to answer. But ultimately, we should look for people who understand both that this is our struggle, and that for many of them, it is not a struggle at all.

Rashmi Joshi is a writer and education policy enthusiast. When she is not thinking or writing about issues of gender, race, and social justice, she is thinking of new baking recipes and staying warm in Chicago. Follow her blog at and on Twitter @FourthWaves.