Code-Switching: The Everyday Reality Students of Color Face Attending a PWI

by jmccoy3 on February 18, 2022


Code-Switching: The Everyday Reality Students of Color Face Attending a PWI

Jezel Tracey ’24


Throughout the years, Providence College’s diversity rates have certainly increased. This is important to providing an equal opportunity to education for all BIPOC students. However, it does not eliminate the realities BIPOC students experience as a result of being a person of color on a predominantly white campus. Oftentimes, many students of color must alternate between two different personalities: one that corresponds with one’s identity and the other that responds to their social setting. This process is known as code-switching.

While code-switching is generally in the context of race, it is important to note that code-switching  can also be practiced in circumstances where there is a difference in age or profession, among others. For context, think of the ways in which one talks around their friends and parents. Due to the fear of appearing disrespectful or improper, they would not speak or act the same way around their parents as they would their friends. However, this sign of unprofessionality becomes perplexing when it is applied to the racialized norms and expectations of students of color. 

Code-switching is not something uncommon. Rather, it has become something normalized into a “second nature” for all people.

While code-switching can be generally understood as a choice, it is a necessity in the day-to-day life experiences of a person of color on a predominantly white college campus. Oftentimes, when a person of color does not code switch, they are not able to comfortably interact with people different from them. Sophia Gaines ’24 explains, “I don’t talk about everything with a white person the same way I would with a Black person because I won’t have a direct connection with them.”

  Students of color are not only aware of what to say and not to say in a casual conversation with white students, but also white authority figures. There exists a fear of appearing unprofessional to their professors and other authorities. The ways in which students of color talk with their counterparts and adults are not accepted as appropriate ways of communicating.

  Gaines also provides that, as a person of color, it is important to “align the ways you speak with how white people do.” She justifies this by suggesting that the ways white people speak are “identified as the proper way of speaking.” Thus, code-switching might make a student of color feel more confident in their conversations with their professors.

  A simple shift in approaching your professor with “Yo, what’s poppin?” to “Hi! How are you doing?” is a prime example of code-switching. While white students might also use phrases like this, the chances of them making a professor or other students uncomfortable are much lower.

  As a result of these experiences, students of color have to operate with a double consciousness.

  According to W.E.B. Du Bois, to have double consciousness is to look at oneself through a “white lens.” This lens is used to assess whether a person of colors’ comments or actions are acceptable or not. Myles Johnson ’24 explains this intersectional awareness as a “unique crossroad” between “authenticity and professionalism.”

  While code-switching is often joked about as a hidden power people of color have, in reality, it is an essential skill of survival in a predominantly white institution. Not all Black students are granted this skill. Take for example, a student of color who has never interacted with white people before coming to college versus one who attended a predominantly white high school. The Black student who has more experience in a predominantly white environment is more likely to be able to comfortably communicate and interact with white people than the one who was not.

Although it can sometimes water down one’s personality and character, code-switching makes being a person of color at a PWI so much easier. This is the honest truth, within a harsh reality.