THE BLOG
09/04/2013 01:44 pm ET Updated Nov 04, 2013

The Curious Conundrum of the Code-switching Token Teacher

A student raises her hand in a politics lecture and confidently proclaims: "If people are to be treated equally under the law, then policies that single out minorities for special advantages are unfair and unnecessary. President Obama is evidence that class is what determines your success in America, not race."

People of color might be able to identify with the following, oft reflexed, 3-step stream of consciousness:

Step 1: Jaw drops reactively in forming of the classic "WTF?" face.
Step 2: Calm down. Quickly straighten out the "WTF?" face, and try to appear nonplussed.
Step 3: Decision point:

  • a) Sit quietly and allow this person -- and whomever else in this room of 150 students agrees with her -- to graduate from here actually believing this, to be elected into Congress (because at this school, it really is a possibility), and then pass laws that curtail civil rights legislation, all while disappointing my ancestors who would have given anything for such a teaching moment on inequality and social justice, or
  • b) Take on the responsibility yet again, as the lone voice of color, to explain the "minority perspective," subject myself to repeated Q&A, speak on behalf of every minority kid who knows for certain that this country is in no way post-racial, deal with the fallout of receiving emails from classmates wanting to discuss it further a.k.a. try to prove me wrong/invalidate my experience, and risk now being forever marginalized at the resident thought leader on the Black perspective even though my field of study is science and technology policy.
  • Phew.

    As you can probably imagine, this thought process -- although it occurs in the mere blink of an eye -- is mentally, emotionally, and spiritually exhausting. And it seems that the more I find myself within elite academic, business, and social arenas where minority perspectives are vastly underrepresented, the more I find myself facing the Curious Conundrum of the Code-Switching Token Teacher.

    Allow me to unpack that a little bit.

    Code-Switching

    Originally used to explain language contact phenomena, in linguistics, to code-switch is to change between different languages during a single conversation. However, the term has evolved into other disciplines such as the context used by Harvard sociology professor Dr. Prudence L. Carter in her research on the black-white educational achievement gap.

    Carter describes how in addition to resource constraints, black student struggles in integrated schools can be significantly explained by the institutional conditions that may culturally exclude students, such as school policies about hairstyle, dress codes, and language -- and the conflict these conditions can pose with home culture authenticity.

    And this isn't the only place we observe code-switching: It may be a woman being more assertive and "masculine" to fit in with her male co-workers, or a black man seamlessly changing his mannerisms and dialect as he transitions from hanging with his white friends to his black ones. As Gene Demby explains on NPR's Code Switch blog: "Many of us subtly, reflexively change the way we express ourselves all the time. We're hop-scotching between different cultural and linguistic spaces and different parts of our own identities -- sometimes within a single interaction."

    I learned pretty early on what it meant to code-switch, even before I had a name for it. I was raised in Compton, Calif., by a single mother who worked as a mail carrier and shop attendant for the post office.

    My sophomore year of high school, I was admitted to a prestigious girls school in Brentwood (a very upper-class suburb of Los Angeles). I'd spend that 1.5- to 2-hour bus commute to school transitioning from the girl from Compton, into the girl who lied about where she grew up, practiced removing the "urban" words and inflections from her lexicon, and was sure to keep her sweater on to conceal the missing school logo on her out-of-uniform plain white K-mart blouse.

    On the way back home, I'd put it all in reverse, desperate to fit in with my friends in the neighborhood. And I was grateful that I got off at the last school bus stop, so no one could ever discover my zip code.

    What a burden for a 15-year-old.

    But it was not until I put this code-switching skill to work in my first full-time job after college that I first discovered what it felt like to be the Token.

    The Token

    I was 22 years old, one of three blacks, and one of a handful of female engineers at a large company in the South. So the stage was pretty much set for weirdness.

    Once, an executive told me that we should have more women facing the (almost exclusively mostly male) customers, because we had a "special way" of interacting with them. I was asked to participate in "diversity" photo shoots, so that HR could publish a booklet that gave the false impression of a colorful and inclusive workplace. And I obliged, because at the time, getting tokenized recognition was better than no recognition at all. And could I really even say no?

    While in most cases it was innocuous, the tokenization sometimes took a more unpleasant turn. Once a marketing director helped himself without my permission to grab hold of my new micro-braids, jokingly asking for explanations on "how they grew so quickly." As I walked into the office of one engineering manager, wearing all black, he laughed and greeted me with, "All I can see are your eyes and your teeth!" And during one drunken happy hour, a senior manager sat next to me and asked me with the most honest of curiosity: "Why is it that black people are so violent and aggressive?"

    They were just so comfortable. And I was reeling inside. Especially since these were not bad or stupid people. These were friends, mentors, brilliant engineers, and father figures who'd had my back in some really tough situations.

    How do I rectify my guilt of becoming so unthreatening and so fearful of breaking "code" that I permitted myself to be the object of implicit racism and sexism? The guilt of succumbing to the fear of a thick HR file, or being seen as the Angry Black Woman? The last thing I wanted was to make people feel they had to tiptoe around me.

    But silence, too, has a cost.

    The Teacher

    During an incredible course at Harvard on Adaptive Leadership, taught by the venerable Dr. Ronald Heifetz, we were discussing the gender, race, and other outwardly determined roles we play in social systems, and how they can be used to our advantage. Distressed, I expressed to the class my fears of being marginalized through tokenism. Heifetz -- who normally sits in the corner for these discussions -- stood up, walked towards me, and asked:

    "Are you aware that the word 'token' has the same indo-European root as the word 'teacher?'"

    Mind. Blown.

    Heifetz uses the etymology of words as a teaching tool to help students understand the historical context of language, and how it subconsciously impacts our dialogues. The root of the word 'token' is deik-, which means "to show;" and it is also the derivation for the Greek word dikē -- which means "justice."

    Token = Teacher = Justice.

    We can begin to unravel why the responsibility of the token is so burdensome: justice is at stake.

    In graduate school, I began to really feel the token-teacher-justice connection. Suddenly, I was surrounded by the future leaders of the free world. And their blundered expressions of confusion, ignorance, or curiosity seemed like opportunities to reach some very powerful hearts and minds.

    So through class discussions on race, class, and privilege, I allowed myself to fall into the seductive role of the teacher. People would look to me to have the answers, or in many cases, to be a debate partner, all under the protected guise of academic exploration. Do you know how much it hurts to try to prove that the world is unequal, by recounting your own horror stories again and again without crying?

    The Conundrum

    We code-switchers are in the unique position to have assimilated so deeply enough into the dominant culture, that people a) trust us, b) listen to us, and c) can be potentially influenced by us. And there are so few of us that we can't just easily say, "I'll leave it to someone else."

    A recent Reuters poll showed that 40 percent of white Americans have no friends outside their race (compared to only 25 percent for non-whites), and racial income inequality and corporate leadership demographics show us that as people climb the professional and socioeconomic ladder, there are fewer and fewer non-whites.

    Some people may realistically never be this closely connected with a black person again to get a real human perspective outside of the 24 Hour News talking heads, the Bill Cosbys, Al Sharptons, or op-eds in The New York Times.

    What if I don't want to write about race, or talk about race, or think about race, or educate about race, or be a spokesperson for my race? Will I become like my friend who can't even sign a NAACP petition for fear her start-up's investors will find out? Or like President Obama who is nearly silent on race, and on the rare exceptions that he speaks up, he's accused of trying to divide the country?

    What is rarely discussed is how heavily these tensions and decisions to not speak up weigh on us. It sometimes feels like a lose-lose situation.

    Searching for a Hack

    It is important to note that not all white people I encounter expect me to or even benefit from me playing this role. Fortunately, through incredible selection bias, my closest white friends work as progressive policymakers, badass leftist think-tankers, and gay, indigenous, and reproductive rights activists -- so if anything, they're the ones teaching me about privilege and social justice.

    Yet knowing that people like my friends exist is what makes the conundrum all the more heartbreaking: It's facing the fact that it's not some condition of "whiteness" and privilege that breeds ignorance, but rather, something deeper, more elusive, and more saddening altogether.

    And it is in that realization that I have recently decided to take a break, and resign my responsibilities as the Code-Switching Token Teacher. No more treading the fine lines between people's comfort and speaking truth to power; no more exhaustive email exchanges about race and privilege; no more putting the needs of others' enlightenment before my own sanity.

    Yet, as Spiderman says, "with great power comes great responsibility."

    So my question to myself and to others who face the Conundrum is, how can we simultaneously fulfill what we believe to be our cultural obligations, while still expressing our authentic selves, and manage to psychologically survive the process?

    Until I can sort that out, this token is off-duty.

    Read the long form of this essay here.

    Subscribe to the Black Voices email.
    Stay plugged in with the stories on black life and culture.