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Pass the Mic

We #PasstheMic to those with enriching perspectives to share their views and goals. Today, Jessica Wainwright, Senior Executive Assistant in the US shares her lived experiences and learnings with us.


Bring your whole self to work

In our current world, where Diversity and Inclusion are buzzwords, I’ve heard this phrase quite often. While reading articles/books/blogs, I continuously see people referencing the idea that “We should let go of what others think about us, embrace vulnerability, and show up in our entirety to the workplace.” While in theory this is awesome, I can speak for many Black people by saying that the workplace isn’t ready for my Blackness. Especially in a society that is systematically white.

Home persona vs work persona

As Black children, we are told that in order to get this job, join that team, or be considered for this promotion, we have to adjust ourselves and assimilate into white culture so that our white counterparts will take us seriously. That’s why when I hear “Bring your whole self to work,” I immediately think of my work persona and my home persona. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still “me” at work, but my work persona is geared to make others feel more comfortable in their acceptance of me. In the Black community, this is known as Code-Switching.


Code-switching is when a person customizes their style of speech, expressions, behavior, and/or appearance to the audience or group being addressed. A person switches back and forth between the two personas to successfully navigate interracial interactions on a day to day basis. Our 44th President, Barack Obama, gave the perfect example of code switching when he greeted the players and staff of Team USA’s basketball team in 2012. Obama shakes the white staff members' hand with a standard handshake. He then proceeds to Kevin Durant and greets him with a handshake that is more common in the Black community, also known as “giving dap”.

But the difference in the personas is not limited to just our handshakes. One of the biggest difference is the way we speak at work. When speaking to each other, we usually speak using African American Vernacular English (AAVE) or Black English (BE). AAVE is the variety of English spoken, mostly in urban communities, by working and middle class Black people. We have words, phrases, infections, mannerisms, and expressions that are familiar to us that might not be widely understood by others outside of our community. This switch between AAVE and Standard American English (SAE) is often introduced at a young age.

My experience with code-switching

My first memory of code-switching happened in early elementary school when I called my mom while she was at work. She’d answer: “Hi, this is Linda.” and in confusion, I’d pull the phone from my ear, look at it, put it back, then say hesitantly: “...Ma?” She’d then switch to a totally different tone (the one I was familiar with) and say, “Oh, hey Jessi.” I was taken aback because my mom didn’t sound like my mom. She went on to explain that she was using her “work voice.” At that age I didn’t understand the need for the change because my neighborhood and school were both on the east side of Chicago which were 98% Black. However, as I got older and was introduced to more things and people, I started to learn when and where this switch normally happens. While attending middle and high school in the south suburbs of Chicago, where the demographic in the schools were almost an even split of Black/White/Hispanic, I constantly noticed the switching of language. When I was speaking to a White classmate I would reference certain things and use certain words that I wouldn’t necessarily use with my Black classmate to make it would be easier for them to understand.

Preparing to interview for my first job in high school, my mom and dad told me, “speak clearly and proper, enunciate, and be confident.” It was heavily implied that the way we speak at home isn’t “professional” and we won’t be taken seriously in the workplace if ww don't switch. The same notion applied to regular interactions with students and faculty at UIC where I entered in the Engineering College. I was the only Black face in a lecture hall that fit hundreds. The switch was “ON” a good portion of the day and switching back and forth came to feel natural like speaking a different language.

Race at work

But from UIC to the working world, the same issue of race and the psychological toll it takes on a person to suppress oneself in hopes of avoiding negative stereotypes imposed on people of color needs to be discussed. We’ve made strides in the last few years to be open about diversity and inclusivity in the workplace and as more of our White counterparts learn of Black experiences, immerse themselves in urban culture, and be open to our cultural differences, we will start to feel comfortable enough to “bring our whole self to work.”

Being Black in the workplace was/is a little lonely at times. In most of the companies that I’ve been a part of, I’m either the only Black person or I can easily name every Black person and they’re almost never in positions of senior leadership. Usually when I step into a company or attend any corporate/networking function, I take a scan of the room just to see if there’s anyone else who looks like me. More often than not, there are only a handful of Black people present and I go back to moving my code-switch to "ON".

As it stands today

I’m comfortable with the people I work with but I do still find myself changing my natural speech and mannerisms. Partially because it’s been a part of my work persona for so long, but also because it’s almost easier to not use certain colloquialisms to avoid having to explain what they mean or to have them taken out of context. It’s exhausting to constantly worry about the unintended consequences of being different than what’s expected.

In the future, I hope that people of color can step into a room and be their full selves without having to second guess if they will be perceived in the wrong way. Or as I’d say to my girls, “Just do you boo!”


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