Education Opinion

Code-Switching and Assimilation in STEM Culture

The scientific community cannot claim it is becoming a diverse and inclusive culture based on numbers alone—not if professionals who are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color must leave themselves behind to be part of it.

By , Curtis L. Walker, Dereka L. Carroll-Smith, and Melissa A. Burt

Picture a young weather enthusiast walking across the stage to receive their meteorology degree. They feel pride in this culmination of their years of hard work. They also recall how that hard work always seemed to appear to others. Friends and family called them “proper” during visits home from school, creating a distance that lingered. Their colleagues and peers frequently offered their own unsolicited impressions:

“You are so articulate!”

“You need to be more professional…”

“You cannot show up like that.”

“You are not like those other Black people.”

Or in another common story, an early-career scientist reflects on the cost of their profession. They earned a degree, but they had to permanently relocate for school and the only career opportunities available to them. Visiting home and family is emotionally exhausting because it is a constant reminder of what was given up to focus on those limited opportunities. They raise a new family away from their abuelitos, missing out on making tamales with their tías or dancing to cumbia at their cousin’s quinciañera. As they slowly lose their grasp of their native language, they fear their children will also lose that deep connection with their Latino heritage. Sí se puede, but is it worth it?

On the surface these stories may sound and feel similar to most of us who pursued higher education or careers in academia. Who hasn’t felt inadequate, had trouble finding their place in a new environment, or ultimately felt as though they did not belong? The difference we authors want to express is that although the situations and experiences may sound similar, the consequences of these experiences for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) professionals in geosciences are very different. Additional stress, emotional labor, and baggage cause long-lasting trauma for BIPOC professionals. We feel this trauma. It is visceral. And it bubbles to the surface even as we write this article. Pursuing careers in this extremely white dominated field requires us, more often than not, to assimilate either internally or externally to the culture, to code-switch. In the process, we lose our authenticity.

This assimilation, however, is counterproductive to the creation of a richly diverse and inclusive scientific community that is prepared to address the questions of our modern world, and more importantly, it is deeply disrespectful and harmful to the BIPOC scientists whom the community boasts about recruiting. We are asking our colleagues to form a better awareness of code-switching, why BIPOC scientists perform it, and how we can address the deficiencies in our community that require it.

Code-Switching and Identity Shifting

The term code-switching originates from linguistics, meaning “the practice of alternating between two or more languages or varieties of language in conversation.” The concept of code-switching has evolved to describe the changes in speech, appearance, and behaviors by an individual to adjust to the norms of the dominant culture in a given space. We have all code-switched at some point, but for BIPOC it can be a mandatory coping strategy to protect ourselves from judgement, discrimination, hypervisibility, and tokenism [Dickens et al., 2019].

Initiatives to increase the number of BIPOC in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) have been working, if slowly, and now these folks are attempting to exist and thrive within the white-centric environments of academic institutions, scientific laboratories, and private industries. Wanting to fit in and be comfortable, BIPOC learn to assimilate cultural norms by “deemphasizing a negatively-valued identity and replacing it with a positively-regarded identity,” also known in psychology literature as identity shifting [Dickens and Chavez, 2018, p. 761].

These shifts can be intentional or unintentional as we evaluate the level of risk associated with the possibility of making white people uncomfortable. For example, we’re asked to participate in a diversity panel, again. Should we express to our white colleagues that we feel used as a prop or just stay quiet and humbly accept the invitation? Will we be seen as problematic or ungrateful? Even through editing of this writing, we authors felt conflicted over appeasing the editors and staying true to our story, appreciating the critique yet not wanting to lose our voice. The risk can range from feeling embarrassed or worried you made a bad impression to being harassed and fearing for your life and safety.

Some BIPOC grow up in segregated communities, only learning to identity shift after they leave home and experience predominantly white spaces such as a university, a scientific conference, or an internship at a national lab. Even within historically Black colleges and universities, academic spaces where Black culture is championed, a Black STEM student may still feel like an outcast if they feel the need to hide their perceived nerdy self to belong, as nerdiness is stereotypically associated with whiteness.

The Cost and Consequences of Code-Switching

The inner turmoil created by shifting identities can often manifest as physical and mental ailments [Dickens and Chavez, 2018]. Code-switching is exhausting, taking up mental capital that should be devoted to our research. We just want to be scientists, without having to separate our culture from our profession, and to be able to present ourselves authentically without needing to constantly account for potentially negative reactions from others.

Instead, we live with that constant nagging in the back of our minds, reminding us that we have to say the right things, react the right way, and behave in a manner that draws attention away from the obvious difference we present. When we are not able to blend in, we falsely believe that we don’t belong and fear being called out as incompetent. This phenomenon is often called imposter syndrome. This explanation, however, identifies the person feeling it as the responsible party—the one who needs to change. Imposter syndrome is, instead, a scapegoat that takes focus away from addressing the culture of bias and systemic racism that exists for women and BIPOC scientists [Tulshyan and Burey, 2021].

For BIPOC in geoscience, those feelings are compounded because of the more extreme cultural isolation that exists in the field compared with other STEM fields. In the geosciences, we are often not just one in a historically excluded group but the only one in our field or lab.

What does a reliance on code-switching force us to give up? We become accustomed to adjusting to norms within our professional workplace (e.g., at the office, at conferences, during a field campaign or expedition) or, often, in the neighborhoods we’re required to move to. Those adjusting behaviors start to become unconscious, even dominant. We start to lose our native and colloquial language and cultural norms. Returning home can make us feel like outsiders looking in. We lose the thread that connects us with the people we grew up with and the people who raised us. Ultimately, we are left to wonder where we fit in.

We are never white enough in our professional environments but become too white in our home communities. Some of us self-exclude and choose not to be seen altogether, not wanting to lose ourselves or be the representative of an entire race of people. But by choosing to stay in the shadows, we also lose the opportunities and recognition that make any profession worth pursuing.

Professionalism Versus Assimilation

We are taught to be professional, but let’s consider the origins of present-day professional standards. In the broadest sense, the concept of professionalism encompasses the conduct by which one is expected to present oneself in formal settings, often customized to one’s discipline.

For geoscientists, these settings include job interviews, research seminars, conferences, classes, labs, and field campaigns. The standards are taught by mentors and in professional development seminars that focus on how to modify people’s behavior rather than how to evaluate, modernize, or fix the many problems in the culture. We persist in perpetuating professional standards that were established by white men many decades ago when women and BIPOC were not represented. Ethnically and culturally traditional attire, hairstyles, and vernacular were inconceivable when present-day professionalism was defined. Some scholars contend that this bias in professional standards is a form of white supremacy.

BIPOC resort to code-switching to boost their perceived professionalism—we assimilate [McCluney et al., 2019]. Code-switching, then, becomes a barrier to true inclusivity [Goldstein Hode, 2017], which should be the ultimate goal of modern professional behavior based in mutual respect and ethical integrity. Inspired by the perspectives of Halsey et al. [2020], we strongly believe we should elevate and celebrate the people within our scientific communities, not ask them to assimilate.

A Path Forward Isn’t Easy

The need for code-switching will persist until we can eradicate the systemic, institutional, and personal racism against which we need a shield. The onus should be on the larger community, not on BIPOC alone, to develop strategies that lead us to modern-day professionalism that is inclusive and respectful of everyone.

How can we collectively create an inclusive community and environment where we can each be our authentic selves? It’s not easy, and we don’t have all the answers. It requires us all to challenge professional standards.

Professionalism should require mutual respect, not assimilation to a single specific set of behaviors. Everyone, but especially those in leadership or supervisory positions, should seek out and recommend professional development opportunities on cultural competencies. Look around your workplace and take steps to evaluate and assess the culture and climate, then use these data to modernize your policies and practices to focus on equitable inclusion. Understand and listen to the variety of experiences of the people around you, in particular those of your BIPOC colleagues. Accept BIPOC colleagues for who they are. By doing so, you’ll show everyone around you how to change the culture rather than changing the people. By working together, we will become better together.

Ultimately, the need for code-switching negatively affects the individual BIPOC professional as well as the entire science community. As challenging as it can be, we are passionate about the science we pursue and desire to contribute to it. But the more we assimilate, the less diverse our science and our ideas become. This lack of diversity makes code-switching and the persistence of the institutions that require it a detriment to the advancement of our knowledge of our rapidly changing world.

To our BIPOC friends, peers, and colleagues: We carry hope in each other, knowing that we can look across the conference table, the poster session, or the Zoom room and be able to lock eyes and feel comfort and community. We want future generations to be empowered to show up as their authentic selves and focus their time and effort on great science, without interference and the additional labor of code-switching.

Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank Deanna Hence, Rebecca Haacker, Rosimar Ríos-Berríos, Talea Mayo, and Valerie Sloan for their encouragement, support, and helpful contributions to this article.

References

Dickens, D. D., and E. L. Chavez (2018), Navigating the workplace: The costs and benefits of shifting identities at work among early career U.S. Black women, Sex Roles, 78, 760–774, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-017-0844-x.

Dickens, D. D., V. Y. Womack, and T. Dimes (2019), Managing hypervisibility: An exploration of theory and research on identity shifting strategies in the workplace among Black women, J. Vocational Behavior, 113, 153–163, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jvb.2018.10.008.

Goldstein Hode, M. (2017), Is “professionalism” an obstacle to diversity & inclusion?, 19 June, www.linkedin.com/pulse/professionalism-obstacle-diversity-inclusion-goldstein-hode-phd/.

Halsey, S. J., et al. (2020), Elevate, don’t assimilate, to revolutionize the experience of scientists who are Black, Indigenous and people of colour, Nat. Ecol. Evol., 4, 1,291–1,293, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-020-01297-9.

McCluney, C. L., et al. (2019), The costs of code-switching, Harvard Bus. Rev., 15 Nov., https://hbr.org/2019/11/the-costs-of-codeswitching.

Tulshyan, R., and J.-A. Burey (2021), Stop telling women they have imposter syndrome, Harvard Bus. Rev., 11 Feb., hbr.org/2021/02/stop-telling-women-they-have-imposter-syndrome?ab=hero-subleft-1.

Author Information

Annareli Morales ([email protected]) and Curtis L. Walker, National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colo.; Dereka L. Carroll-Smith, University of Maryland, College Park; and Melissa A. Burt, Colorado State University, Fort Collins

Citation: Morales, A., C. L. Walker, D. L. Carroll-Smith, and M. A. Burt (2021), Code-switching and assimilation in STEM culture, Eos, 102, https://doi.org/10.1029/2021EO161232. Published on 28 July 2021.
Text © 2021. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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