One of the most fascinating things I’ve seen while doing my study, Poles, Power and the Everyday Woman, has been watching some of my interview subjects (and myself) code switch throughout different environments. Not familiar with the term “code switch”? Here is Merriam-Webster’s definition:
“the switching from the linguistic system of one language or dialect to that of another.”
The term “code switching” is derived from linguistic studies but now it’s used to describe people’s behavioral patterns as well, demonstrating subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) mannerisms from one situation to the next.
Some cultural critics such as Matthew Salesses of NPR have written about code-switching as an oppressive expectation for marginalized people, forcing them to assimilate to Westernized ideas of what is socially appropriate. I would counter that code switching isn’t about conflict, but about negotiation. At the office we button ourselves up and fully pronounce our words. At home we walk around in our sweats and speak in Creole to our grandmother. On a date we let out our hair and fondle it as we make eyes at our better half on the other side of the table. Sometimes we code-switch without thinking or because we want to fit in. Sometimes we want something out of it, we want to say something with discretion, or we need to say something that can’t be said with words. People (not simply minorities) have many motivations behind code-switching and it speaks more to our depth as individuals than to societal pressures to act a certain way.
Observing my friend and co-worker Veronica*, she seems to code-switch from work-mode to party mode without thinking. In an interview she talks about the importance she places on “ladylike behavior” and expresses her concerns over women being “smutty” and “overly sexual.” “You can be sexy and still be respected,” she asserts.
Watching Veronica cut a rug at the bar on Saturday night with her friends from the office, you would probably do a double take to make sure she was the same woman from the interview. Sober as a nun, Veronica manages to get a crowd of men to cheer her on as she rocks her body to French Montana. To say her style is “smutty” is highly debatable, but it certainly isn’t ladylike. I dance and chant her name in the distance, laughing and marveling at how Veronica could turn from a class act to a party animal within minutes. The beast is in all of us, I think.
“Dance has always played a huge role in defining a lot of black social identities, I think for girls and boys,” says CUNY Professor Kyra Gaunt. She remarks that for females in hip hop and party culture, that definition is largely formed in the eyes of the beholder, and it has its drawbacks. “We seem to have less and less awareness that we’re not performing something for ourselves, we’re performing for men more than ever before…And there’s not a lot of balance in the media for girls to learn that that might not be in our best interest.”
Her point seems rather bleak but my own experience on the dance floor gives Gaunt’s words merit. A guy friend I was dancing with (also one of my co-workers) got so excited from the music, the drinks and the shaking rumps that he decided to touch one—mine. (Don’t worry, I put him in check.) I was thrown off-guard, as his stunt was a far cry from his work persona and I didn’t believe my dancing with him warranted it. I would have just written it off as an episode of “when code switching gets socially awkward,” but our boss was babysitting with a tequila shot in her hand just feet away. It was my reputation on the line. Not his.
Thankfully, my reputation at work remains in good standing. The same goes for Veronica. We’re still trusted with our responsibilities and then some. If my boss saw anything, she probably also saw me swiftly pulling away from my friend to reject his advances. To my relief, he quickly backed down with a sheepish smile. The two of us carried on for another three hours like giddy Soul Train dancers as if nothing happened.
Women constantly have to walk the line between being seen as desirable, dynamic and approachable while also being professional, strong and refined. There’s been plenty of discussion around the unfair double standards for female professionals that impede their advancement. But I wonder about the women who have enjoyed navigating the ups and downs of gender/sexual politics in the workplace, and have been successful at it without lying on their backs or bobbing their heads.
Here, Journalist Joan Morgan is speaking towards professional women being seen as bitchy and aggressive, but I think her comment could also apply to their posturing as sexual beings. “I think that whenever there are women…in a male dominated industry, they find themselves having to make negotiations. I think that there are women deriving pleasure from it…It’s just that they get penalized for it in a very different way.”
I feel like this Veronica and I fall into this category, minus the penalization part. Veronica walked off the dance floor into the embrace of our other work friends with a smirk on her face. I left the club with the group walking alongside my male friend, savoring the oddly amusing and vague sexual tension. There hasn’t been a hint of sexual harassment since—at least for now.
Gaunt has a right to be concerned about the effect that gender politics in the media and everyday life has on young women. In any case, if young women feel pleasure and comfort from occasionally performing less than wholesome characteristics in public spaces, we don’t need to get our panties in a bunch. For the most part, code switching is not a dilemma. It’s about highlighting different aspects of our personalities. The misguided judgment and intrusive responses from others are unfortunately what come with the territory. Finding a way to gracefully—yet sternly—respond to it is what truly makes a lady.
*name has been changed.