If you’ve ever seen the hilarious 2014 Key & Peele sketch of President Obama’s meet and greet, you have an idea of what code-switching can look like.
In the humorous scene, Jordan Peele depicts President Obama greeting a lineup of caucasian lookers on with a handshake. However, when he approaches Keegan Michael Key who is Black, the Obama character completely changes his approach to a more culturally familiar one. This is a reimagined scene based on an actual event where President Obama visited the locker room of the U.S. men’s Olympic basketball. There was a stark difference in how Obama acted with a white assistant coach and the way he greets NBA player Kevin Durant.
Although Key & Peele exaggerated the event, it’s the perfect example of code-switching, a practice that many Black people take on everyday.
Defined by Brittanica as a process of shifting from one language to another, code-switching for Black Americans existing in white spaces don’t necessarily mean shifting from English to another country’s dialect. We are often forced to shift much of our cultural identity to one that’s more palatable by the white majority.
Reonna Johnson, VP of California-based marketing & advertising firm Deutsch LA knows just how exhausting this is.
For much of her career, she said she’s had to learn how to be ‘the right kind of Black’ to excel professionally.
“It’s often thought that there’s this default setting for the Black experience,” Johnson explained. “That default is based around negative tropes we just kind of inherited in this way of like, ‘oh, so if I’m closer to that, then that means I’m doing the ‘Regular Black’ person thing.’ But in actuality, we should interrogate that a little bit more and realize we all are having sort of a regular Black experience because we’re navigating living in this White supremacist world together at the same time.”
She said it’s important to regularly take inventory of what we deem acceptable and try to align that with who we really are.
“It’s not a linear experience that we’re having, so one of the main reasons why I put the podcast together is trying to explore what that really means for us.”
The podcast she’s referring to is Hex Code Black, a new show created by Johnson, Deutsch LA and its production arm, Steelhead.
It’s described as an experience that navigates conversations with Black creatives through “an unapologetic Black POV” centered around the intersection of race, culture and creativity.
The first episode features Johnson speaking with guests about what it means to be deemed ‘regular’ Black versus ‘ethinc’ Black.
“We’re constantly fighting to show White people that ‘I’m not that kind of Black person.'”
A LA-area native, early on Johnson said she understood the subtle nuances of being deemed the acceptable form of Black, often contingent on what part of the city you were from.
“I had to learn how to play the socio-corporate game,” she shared. “I’d speak on things that I played up or played down to gauge people’s reactions, then go from there.” Originally from Watts, California, a predominantly Black and low-income community, Johnson said she quickly learned what people’s perceptions of her were based on her hometown.
“Around the age of 9, my mom and I moved from Watts to Santa Monica—so as a younger professional, I’d say that’s where I was from and then I saw how White people thought ‘oh, okay, so you’re the right kind of Black person’,” she shared with Essence, referencing Santa Monica’s more affluent demographic compared to Watts.
“I learned to lead with the fact that I grew up in Santa Monica as opposed to Watts because I understand where the mind goes when I make that distinction. It’s subtle nuances like that that make working in corporate America that much more draining.”
She’s not wrong.
A 2019 study says that Black and Latinx students that try ‘acting white” over a sustained period of time could cause psychological implications over the course of their lifetime.
“When you cannot be your true and authentic self, there’s going to be some blowback,” Jameta Nicole Barlow, PhD, MPH, community health psychologist and assistant professor of writing at The George Washington University said in an interview with Psych Central.
Johnson explores this and so much more on the podcast, which features creative professionals that include British Jamaican Creative Director, Tahirah Byfield-Edwards (72and Sunny); Brooklynite and Grenadian-American Art Director Rae James (AKQA); and South African creator/D.J. Xolisa Tshomela. In addition, Loyola Marymount University professor, Dr. Maia Niguel Hoskins, who specializes in counseling, race relations and critical race theory, joined the conversation to offer her perspective on how ‘regular’ Blacks and ‘ethnic’ Blacks often coexist in a world that sees them as one in the same.
“The problem with code-switching is thinking that what you’re assimilating into is better than who you really are,” Johnson. “But what we all have to realize is that the only you should feel compelled to do is show up as the best version of you to get ahead.”