A Personal Reflection: The Power of Code Switching

by Daniel Alexander

Bibi Al-Ebrahim's personal reflectionThis blog post is written by Amizade’s Education Director, Bibi Al-Ebrahim. She is a Kuwaiti, U.S. American, and soon-to-be Ecuadorian, who resides in both Pittsburgh, PA and San Miguel de Los Bancos, Ecuador. This blog is a reflection on the impact and influence that code switching has had on her life. 

For my entire life I have code switched — adapting my behavior depending on location and company. I was born in Kuwait to a Kuwaiti father and US American mother. We would travel often, mostly to the US to visit family, so I began to culturally code switch at a young age. When we moved to the US permanently, code switching helped me integrate. I didn’t realize for a long time that not everyone learned to code switch. I assumed it was a skillset everyone needed to navigate the most mundane to the most complex of life’s tasks.

It’s not until recently that I’ve become aware of vocabulary — like code switching — to describe what always felt akin to being a part of my native language. As a young adult, I began to realize that while code switching was a natural modus operandi I could engage depending on where I was and with whom, I began to also understand that it was a set of learned skills forced upon me to fit in, to be accepted, or simply to better ensure my success in the dominant culture. As a lesbian, I code switch to be safe in the heterosexual-dominant world. The need to code switch for this reason is painful, and frankly, I wish it weren’t necessary. Individuals needing to code switch to protect themselves should not be our collective answer to righting injustices, which we all know, but until policies and systems truly reflect fairness and equality (and I have faith that they slowly are), I consider code switching a shield that keeps me safe.

The need to code switch can be very painful, but based on my experience it can also be much more powerful than just protective. While code switching has been a shield, it has also been one of the greatest contributors to my ability to empathize and connect.

Amizade program with the The Fulbright Program in Appalachia
Bibi and a group of international scholars from the Fulbright Program during a program in Appalachia

Code switching has meant having the opportunity to explore the many facets of who I am. From a very young age, I learned to explore and express different parts of myself depending on where I was or who I was with. I have always felt that being myself is chameleon-like, different colors and shades to fit the moment, while completely natural in all states. This has helped me appreciate the complexity of people, and as a result I find it easy and natural to find common ground.

“The need to code switch can be very painful, but based on my experience it can also be much more powerful than just protective.”

I’ve facilitated cross-cultural and global education experiences with young people for the past 14 years. Much of my motivation and belief in the power of global education on the personal, communal, and global levels comes from the benefits I have experienced from code switching. The need to code switch has made my life richer than it would have been otherwise. It’s given me the confidence to explore the world and to comfortably hold the tension when my expectations and values don’t match reality. The skills and insights that code switching has afforded me have brought people into my life who have become my friends despite our different takes on the world and what it should look like. The need to code switch has made me understand what it means to be excluded, and these experiences motivate me to be a person that makes others feel welcome. Learning to code switch has the potential to go beyond simply being a protective shield. The more we’re in situations that have us practice code switching, the stronger our collective superpower of resilience, empathy, and kindness becomes.

Amizade in the Navajo Nation
Bibi leading a program with students in the Navajo Nation