Workin' it Out Podcast

The Cost of Code Switching

January 14, 2022 Season 2 Episode 8
Workin' it Out Podcast
The Cost of Code Switching
Show Notes Transcript

Juan Lopez, founder of management consulting firm Amistad Associates, joins Dr. Vanessa Weaver to discuss the role of code switching in Corporate America. He explains what code switching is, how it’s employed by Latino professionals and the impact it can have on one’s career and self-esteem. 

In This Episode

·      What code switching is and how it shows up in the workplace

·      How code switching negatively impacts the experiences and overall well-being of professionals of color 

·      How Latinos code switch to advance their careers and how it prevents them from being their authentic selves

·      The extent to which White professionals and managers are aware of code switching in their organizations

·      How to create and foster an environment in which Latinos and others won’t feel the need to code switch


·      Juan Lopez

·      Amistad Associates

·      Dr. Vanessa Weaver

·      Alignment Strategies

·      The Cost of Code-Switching

Follow Us on Social Media

Workin’ It Out

·      LinkedIn

·      Facebook 

·      Instagram

·      Twitter

Alignment Strategies

·      LinkedIn

·      Facebook

·      Twitter

Diversity and Inclusion Television

·      LinkedIn

·      Facebook 



Dr. Vanessa Weaver: Welcome. I'm Dr. Vanessa Weaver, your host of Workin' It Out. On this episode, we're going to talk about code switching. Code switching sounds like one of those mystical words, but it's defined by Harvard Business Review as the act of adjusting one's speech, appearance, behavior, and expressions in ways that really make other people feel more comfortable, and i.e. allow for people to feel like they fit in and more accepted. And code switching also occurs among bilingual and multilingual individuals who often switch languages in the conversation. I have a phenomenal person that is going to be talking with us about code switching today. His name is Juan Lopez, and I must tell you I've had the distinct privilege and pleasure to do consulting work with Juan at J and J as we explored the realities of multicultural individuals. And so I'm particularly excited to have you with me today, Juan, so welcome.

Juan Lopez: Thank you. Thank you, Dr. Weaver. It is a pleasure to be with you. Some of my greatest projects have been working with you and having a lot of fun as well as being able to help people better understand not only who they want to be as authentic people but be able to express themselves at an organization and be able to do the best work they can as leaders.

Weaver: You founded your consulting firm, Amistad Associates, when, in what, 19 what?

Lopez: '87.

Weaver:  In 1987 when you and I were both just babies.

Lopez:  Yes.

Weaver:  Right. 

Lopez:  Yeah.

Weaver:  And I was really intrigued by the name Amistad, because as we know, Amistad has a really particular significance in African-American history. Can you tell us a little bit about that name and why you chose that as a Latino?

Lopez:  I'll first start off and say, we used Amistad before Steven Spielberg used it in the movie.

Weaver: Okay.

Lopez:  And Amistad is friendship. So we were... There were a small group of us in Oakland, California that were doing consulting work, and really a lot of it was community organizing back at that time. Trying to help nonprofits. And we came together because we felt it was necessary to be available to help a lot of different organizations navigate, not only diversity, but navigate what it means to be a fully viable and recognized, in this case, it was Mexican-origin non-profits in Oakland, and to build those relationships so that we had more influence in helping to address barriers that were getting in the way of the community.

Weaver: And also you founded the Diversity 2000. What was that?

Lopez:  I think it was 1993. I began to do work with Harrison Owen, who had introduced sort of a large-group process for what was called shared organizing. And it was called open-space technology. I began to work with Harrison, and I was totally caught up with the openness of using OST to get into compelling issues. And so I wanted to bring together people that work together, people that competed together, but to have three days using this open source to come up with ideas and strategies and share information on how we could all be more effective in building the field of diversity. So that's what we did using OST and we're still doing it now.

Weaver: In fact, you're using OST with some of the police organizations in Northern California.

Lopez:  In some cases, yeah. I run leadership academies that have all members of the city involved, including police, fire, and a whole host of other departments. And I've used OST to help design a more appropriate leadership academies, help build cultures and organizations, and all aimed at improving better customer service. And you and I both know that police have a difficult time building trusting relationships, particularly with communities of color. And so when you're emphasizing the importance of customer service, you're really trying to help all these different individuals understand how do I meet the person where they're at? How do I respect them? How do I appreciate their diversity? How do we create dignity so that we could better understand our mutual needs?

Weaver: I shared a little bit that Harvard Business School definition of code switching. How do you define code switching?

Lopez:  I define it... You know, it's very complex psychologically, but simply stated it's changing who you are to fit in. And the reasons that people do it can be tied to, let's say, economic survival. It could be tied to just career opportunities. There's a whole host of reasons that people do it, but fundamentally it's changing who you are to fit in. And what that means is you're not necessarily being your authentic self, bringing your full self to the organization.

Weaver: Yeah, and we know with the additional work that Deloitte did on the study of covering, they found out that 79% of Blacks admitted to covering and something like 63% of Hispanic/Latinos admitted to covering and the LGBT covering went to like 83%. Women also covered 67%. And guess what even White males covered at a lower percentage. It was like 45% covered. So when I looked at that stat, I said, Well, covering is an equal opportunity skill here. I mean, everybody appears to be covering. So what makes that an issue or a point of concern, particularly when we think about it in the diversity space?

Lopez:  If you think about... And we were just talking about the acronym, DEIB, diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. But in the last five years or so, equity and belonging have picked up more as part of the whole diversity related work. And so I would say that inclusivity and belonging are two powerful areas where, as human beings, you want to feel that you can be included as part of the organization, as part of the team. And you also want to feel like the organization has a place for you and you belong. So you don't always feel like you're a stranger in a strange land there. And I think if we go back to the thinking around our early days in careers, you couldn't remember how isolating it felt to be one of the few. Although we have numbers that are increasing, they're still increasing fairly slowly, but essentially when you're one of the few and you're in the organization, you don't like you're included. In fact, you at times feel like you're invisible. And you also feel like you're watching people operate and feel very close to being a part of what's going on, but you don't belong to that. 

So I think the need to have that, the importance of seeing that when you're included and you feel belonged, it can have a positive impact on how you're viewed, and therefore when you start looking at growing in the organization and promoting, you want to have that because you want to get hired and you want to have the right image of reputation. So I think when that takes place, there's a need for people to feel like they have to code switch, and also using the term you have too, covering. I think it's, the more I'm like the mainstream, the more I'm like the norm, the easier it is for me to be seen as one of the team members.

Weaver: And interestingly, as you know, in our work, the more you try to conform and be like everybody else, the more the company doesn't benefit from the diversity that you bring to an organization. So if you really feel that people's diversity is an enabler to innovation in an organization, to having more understanding of the consumer or the marketplace to create efficiencies, so to the extent I'm trying to be more like somebody else, then the organization doesn't benefit from the diversity that I bring in. So we use the covering or code switching to solve one problem, but then it takes away the advantages that your diversity brings.

Lopez:  Excellent point, Dr. Weaver. I think... and it was a strategy of what we built into our leadership programs. And it was essentially... And I would say probably extremely important that the organization we worked with support people being authentic and not feeling like they have to change who they are to fit in.

Weaver: Right.

Lopez:  Now, I think what we were able to bring as you just mentioned, was data that could help people and organizations understand the downside of people code switching, because they're afraid and reluctant to share their ideas. They're afraid to step out and lead. And when you're afraid to be who you are in an organization, then all the talent you bring, all the wisdom you have, all of these sorts of reasons that you were hired are now hidden, and that doesn't benefit anyone.

Weaver: And we know through the research on code switching, as well as covering, is that when people are so focused on trying to fit in and not be their authentic selves, sometimes it could take 30% of their workday just trying to, you know, play this game and look a particular way, or act a particular way, or sound a particular way. And I'm curious from the Latino perspective.

Lopez:  Yeah.

Weaver: You know, how much pressure does that place on say Latinos in a workplace?

Lopez:  Yeah, let me share a story. I will say it's not as strong as it used to be, but it is also generationally based. And what I mean by that is that if you're a recent immigrant, you feel daily pressure to code switch, to be more like whatever the perception of American is supposed to be. And people feel free to tell you, you know, speak English, do this, do that. If you want to be in this country, you got to be like us.

Weaver: They tell you that to your face.

Lopez:  Yes, there's been a number of cases of that over the last couple of years in California, where those comments are being made. And you know, I think it's pretty clear we're a divided nation. And sometimes people who are on the conservative side that are against immigration have real strong feelings about why they don't want Latinx people coming into this country. And so depending on the generation, you have more of it. I'm third generation and sometimes, not as much now, but in the past I would get, you know, I would hear statements about, you know, my difference. 

But going back to your question, I want to say that I was once called to work with an executive who was in New Mexico. So when you think about the state of New Mexico, it's pretty diverse in terms of indigenous people, Hispanos, Mexican-origin people, and they call White people Anglos there. And so this person was running a big facility for a computer company, and they did a lot of manufacturing. So I was called in to work with him because he was having a very difficult time. And so as we sat and talked and I was trying to figure out what was going on, he said, "You know, everywhere I've been, back east, this place, that place, I've been successful. Here, I'm not successful." And I go, "Well, what's going on?" He goes, "The Mexican people don't like me. The Native American people don't like me. The White people don't like me. They all say I'm a leader that can't be trusted." And I asked, "Well, what's that about?" And he goes, "Well, they don't feel I'm being real." And I go, "Well, what's being real?" And he goes, "They look at me and they say you're trying to be White. You're trying to be somebody that you're not." 

And the overall message is if you're not authentic, if you're not real, how can we trust you? And how can we trust you to lead the organization? So I'm looking at the person who was fairly dark complected, really looked Mexican origin. And I said, "How can you not see yourself as Mexican?" And he goes, "Early on when I was growing up in Los Angeles, the message was, you don't want to be Mexican. You want to be least Mexican in appearance and behavior that you can so that you can, you know, get ahead in your career. You can get hired." And I was baffled a bit. And I said, "You know, when you look in the mirror, it's pretty clear you're Mexican." And he goes, "Well, for 20 years before this, every time I looked in the mirror, I saw a White person." And as a psychologist, I had to really let that sink in because clearly there wasn't a deeper diagnosis, but that was the extent of his code switching. And because that started to be very confusing, he lost a lot of people. And so fortunately he was reassigned to run a plant in Spain and became very successful. And then slowly started to try to connect with his cultural self and to begin to be more, not only authentic, but better clear about what were the things that were haunting him. 

Weaver: And you know, that is such a compelling story. I mean, it's like a real tear-jerker, because you can only imagine the confusion he was going through having been seeing himself as White when you clearly and others clearly see him as Mexican or Mexican origin. And we know through that data in that Deloitte study that over 60% of individuals who code switch or cover resent it. They talk about the level of resentment that they feel not being able to stand in their own dignity, to stand in their own ethnic pride and, you know, recognition. And the fact that many of them feel that their supervisors require them to code switch or cover. So it's not just something they feel like they're bringing in, but they read the tea leaves and say, you need to look and be an act more like me to be successful in this organization. And what we know particularly, we know that this newer generation of individuals, millennials, for example, are not as accepting of that. And in fact, often leave companies at higher rates because they can't be their authentic selves. What's your experience with that?

Lopez: I believe those of us who've been involved in helping to change the culture of organizations through diversity and inclusion early on, and now more equity, know that in the beginning, those organizations could be stifling. And we also know a lot of people who couldn't go through the code switching that left those organizations. And I think because DEIB has been around for many years, it's opened the door for this current generation to be more authentic and more clear about the diversity they bring. And they're certainly bringing a lot of expression and diversity into the organizations. And I think it will continue to grow. They're leading the charge there. But again, I would go back and say early on beginning to change that on a cultural level, in terms of values and norms, it was pretty challenging. You know, people were like meeting in secret trying to talk about how do we help the organization recruit out of this Black university or in an area where there are more Latinos and how do we get them to understand that people that look like us can contribute to the organization. And you know, it's taken a lot of work to address and help people look at those stereotypes and that racism and hopefully, you know, begin to move past it so that they can make the changes that their organization needs.

Weaver: Well, Juan, you know, answer this question for me. You're a White supervisor, and you have Latinos in your organization who have career aspirations, who made the investment to get prepared, you know, academically. and how would you know as a White manager, that's a person is code switching. What are some of the signs and signals that would cue you into that?

Lopez: That's a great question. And in some of my workshops where we talk about code switching that's when I asked White managers to work on in smaller groups during the course of a day-long training. But essentially what I ask is the extent to which they're aware. So now we're asking the White manager to use emotional intelligence. And if they're sensing that something doesn't feel right, pay close attention to the behaviors, what's the social impact of your EQ in terms of reading the room, and how comfortable do people feel on the team or in the organization? And that's one way for you to begin in your one-on-ones to have the courage to ask the individual, hey, how do you think you're doing in the organization? Do you feel like you belong here? Do you feel like you're having, you know, opportunities to pursue promotions? How do you engage with others? And when you begin to have that candid conversation and you introduce some of the dimensions of diversity, you get information.

Weaver: Yeah.

Lopez: And then part of that would be to ask, do you feel like you have to make any changes to who you are to be seen as valuable to our organization?

Weaver: So what I'm hearing you say Juan is instead it's important for that White supervisor to legitimize the conversation, to bring it up-

Lopez:  To introduce-

Weaver: To make it a part of getting to know an individual. So say, you would have a Latina supervisor, or Latina direct report, or in my case, a Black supervisor and a Black direct report. And oftentimes we would hear that that person would say it's harder to work for a Latina supervisor or a Black supervisor than for somebody White. I feel like they make it harder. They require me to address or perform at levels or standards higher than I see what they would require me to perform, you know. that they require other Whites to perform for them. Well, how does code switching play into that?

Lopez: That's a statement I've heard quite a bit over the years. And one of the points I wanted to make was when I entered the job market in, it was probably 1979, 1980, we really had, at that time three generations, but what I'm focusing on is what was called the veteran generation and we were the Boomers. So Boomers were some of the first Mexican-origin people or Latinx to come into organizations. And the number of times where I was working in these organizations, and I heard a Latinx people say to me, man, this place is rough. People don't feel good about their heritage. In fact, you know, you kind of walked through the halls or you go to the cafeteria, you see, you know, we're only a small number. You see somebody that looks like you and you want to acknowledge them and you go to look at them and they look down.

Weaver: Or look away, yeah.

Lopez:  Or they look away and you're like, whoa. And it was sad in some ways, how many times people in our generation joked about the Latinx who proceeded us as wanting to ignore us, wanting to downplay their heritage, or we know who were Latinx, but they changed their name and said they weren't. And so if someone feels like they had to code switch, they're Latinx, they had to code switch, they don't feel good about their heritage and their culture and they don't feel good about being who they are, then naturally, it's going to make it difficult for them to be a good manager and a good leader for people who are happy being who they are authentically. How do you trust a boss like that? And they're concerned about, you know, are you going to expose them? Well, it gets to be very complex in terms of those psychological dances that take place like that, but it's less so today. But it hasn't gone away completely.

Weaver: Completely, I agree.

Lopez:  And I also think... I think to the extent someone feels good about who they are, holistically, culture, gender, sexual orientation, what have you, the better EQ skills they have, the more authentic they can be and therefore they're able to communicate and meet people and work with people in a way that we think is more productive in helping them be successful in the organization.

Weaver:  Well, Juan, you gave some great advice to a supervisor on what to do. So what would be one piece of advice you would give a Latina who's realizing that they're code switching. What would you say would be one thing for them to do?

Lopez:  Well, I have few. So what I would say is you have to ask yourself, how much do I have to give up and how frequently do I have to do it? And then what is the cost to my self-esteem for doing that behavior? The other is, are you even aware that you code switch?

Weaver:  Right.

Lopez:  On top of that, do you have to code switch? Is this something in your head or do you feel you have to code switch? I think we know that when you're authentic, you grow and develop, you become more successful in your career. And so the extent you can get closer to understanding being your full self, I think that's more valued in organizations. Let me just end with a story about that, because this happened only about four years ago. I was working with a high-tech group in Silicon Valley, and one of the few participants was Latinx. So during the break, we're talking, and I said, you know, you look like you're, you know, Latino, but your name it's really different, but I still detect the accent. He looks at me and he goes, "Yeah, I changed in high school. I felt like I had to.' And I go, "Why?" He goes, "I just felt like I had to." And I said, "Doesn't that create problems in terms of your culture?" And he goes, "I've been so distant from it, it doesn't." He goes, "In fact, I'm married to a White woman, and now I'm so afraid about being Latinx that I haven't even told my two children that they're half Latino." And I was just kind of like blown away. And I was like, "How do you live with that?"

Weaver: Yeah.

Lopez:  And he goes, "I'm having a harder and harder time doing so."

Weaver: Well, we know it's a cost that you pay when you code switch and when you cover, and I just thank you for engaging us in some really candid conversations and your storytelling. I mean, I was thinking we should just do a whole show of telling stories as examples of this. Well, Juan, I want to thank you so much for the gift of better understanding code switching and really investing the time to talk about that with your incredible stories that you share with us today. So again, thank you, Juan Lopez. And as I close out our time today, I wish all of you a safe, productive, and what we call a be happy week. Goodbye.