Code-Switching to Survive


Have you ever heard of the term code-switching?

It was originally utilized in linguistics for when an individual mixes or alternates between two languages in spoken or written word. Later, it expanded to sociolinguistics, referring to switching between dialects, terms, phrases etc. based on audience. Most recently it has been used in the behavioral sciences for when one modifies one’s behavior and/or image, so that they can meet various sociocultural norms.

Why do I bring this up? Because…

I code-switch. And it’s how I survive. 

Code-switching is not identity confusion or an inability to understand my own identities (I absolutely do struggle with those but code-switching is neither). It is me recognizing my identities I hold at that time and being able to measurably understand them and how they add or take away from the conversation and even be welcomed into the community at present.

And because of my layers of identities I code-switch frequently:

As a gay male, I can “FAAAAABULOUS” it up with the best of them. But when I’m around primarily straight males, I “butch” it up because part of it is to make them more comfortable and part is for my own safety.

Whether right or wrong the Asian identity is neither prominent nor invisible. It’s just there. And because of that, when dialogues of race arise, I find myself being “ASIAN”. But I code this for two different reasons. Amongst non-white friends and colleague I do this because many times, I want to be considered a “legit” racial minority. When I’m surrounded by white people, I do this because I feel a need to represent my racial identity.

And when I’m in a space with both, I code-switch to being an adopted South Korean raised by white parents, because for me, I have an ability to look into both sides and make connections. Unfortunately because of our limited human capabilities, that is not always a welcomed perspective or stance. Last week in the #SAChat I refered to this as being tape:

As an adopted South Korean, when I’m with my parents and brother and family, I am their son, brother, nephew, cousin, etc. When we’re out in public with strangers, we all code-switch to me being the “adopted son” or the “adopted son of John and Char”, because there’s a look in people’s eyes when they look at my white parents and me, we know they are wondering how we became a family and so we code-switch to adding “adopted” to my familial titles.

As a mid-level, gay, Asian, male in Student Affairs, I code switch on an hourly basis:

When I’m in meetings with only males I code-switch my language to meet the sociocultural norms of ubber-masculinity in order to “correct” my more natural feminine tendencies.

When I’m in spaces with non-white identity colleagues and friends my language is more relaxed and blunt because they’ll understand the impact of race on a life; and I code-switch to much more reserved and cautious language when I’m in a room of only white colleagues and friends..

When I’m in meetings with elders in the field I switch to more “refined” vocabulary and mature conversations as opposed to when I’m working with colleagues my age or my students, my vocabulary is filled with colloquialisms and “text talk”.

Let’s be honest, my full 100% perspective is not welcomed, embraced or able to be comprehended by most. And that’s why I code switch. I know people code-switch for me, and I for them, because as one of millions of human flaws, we will never be able to fully accept anyone’s entire perspective. I mean, there are very few people in this world that this applies to:


And let it be known that each and every one of us code-switches. In my opinion, not a single person can say they don’t code-switch. We each code-switch for different reasons. And perhaps it’s because we all code-switch that we find ourselves where we normally do in hard conversations and how spaces like Facebook have found us struggling.

Now, I’ll be honest, I won’t stop code-switching. I need to survive. For some, I code-switch so they can understand. For others, I code switch for my safety. For still others, I code-switch in order to preserve my “legitimacy”. And for now, for me, until we figure out a way to accept and embrace person wholly and who they are and their perspectives we’ll forever code-switch and continue, what can end up being a vicious circle.

Just a small part of what my reflecting on conversations of late have perculated. I suppose the next step in my processing is how to break this code-switching cycle…if it can ever be broken.

Thanks for taking the time to read through my musing and processing!

Until next time,

Peace, Love and Pandas!

Published by Brian

I am currently the Assistant Director of Student Life for Registered Student Organizations and Late-Night Programming at Michigan State University. After earning my B.A. from the University of Michigan-Flint, I entered the Student Affairs profession. After a few years in the field, I returned to school and earned my M.A. in Educational Leadership-Higher Education Student Affairs from Eastern Michigan University. In my spare time I blog about my thoughts and musings on current issues in higher education, student affairs, digital worlds, identity development and general life inspirations and observations. I also volunteer a lot for my fraternity and multiple regional and national professional associations.

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