Every week, critic Hari Ziyad breaks down the mechanics of a particularly excellent Insecure scene, joke or character. This week, it’s all about the limits of “switching it up.”
Every Black person knows the drill. Given the historically negative associations with anything related to our race, we learn early on the utility of “code-switching.” Rather than scaring off anyone who could impact our livelihoods and who is conditioned to believe Black is inferior, we mute or disguise cultural markers in mixed company. “If you want to be successful here,” Insecure’s Molly advises a young Black lawyer named Rasheeda who just started at her company, “you’ve got to know when to switch it up a little bit.”
In “Racist as F—,” Rasheeda is unapologetic about her Blackness. Rather than keeping the “girrrrl”-ing and sass to herself and the Black people who know better than to reduce her to a walking stereotype—as Molly saves most of her racialized banter about work for private conversations with Issa—Rasheeda embraces all of herself all the time. And she does not give any fucks.
“I didn’t switch it up in my interview with the senior partners, and I didn’t switch it up when I was named editor of the law review,” she responds, offended. “So I don’t think I need to switch it up now.”
Though I don’t believe Molly meant any harm, I couldn’t help but praise the gods for Rasheeda and her clap back. Of course stereotyping and the value society assigns to Black stereotypes especially is wrong, but there is nothing wrong with being a sassy Black woman, and no reason it should ever be punished or censored. Rasheeda is not any less capable of producing the work she needs to produce, as she outlines in her retort, and it’s not her responsibility to deal with racist views about her otherwise.
This interaction exposes a critical tension all Black people must deal with at some point in their lives. In simply trying to survive a world not set up for us, we often hide and erase important aspects of ourselves in ways others aren’t expected to do. Though this is just a sad reality of navigating anti-Blackness, we sometimes go an unnecessary and harmful step further by pressuring other Black people around us to hide and erase themselves as well, even when we know the pain of it all.
Code-switching is supposed to be an act of subversion. We aren’t saying there is anything wrong with Blackness when we do it, and we are actually proving the opposite by showing we can play the game while only pretending not to be who we are. But this act of sabotage becomes complicity when we reinforce the rules we intend to break.
It’s very real that Molly may have gotten where she is within her company by “switching it up,” but it’s just as real that her struggles made room for Rasheeda. Though Molly hid some of her Blackness from her coworkers, it is impossible to hide it all, and by simply being Black in that space and being successful, she becomes proof that Blackness is capable. Perhaps even Blackness as loud and obvious as Rasheeda’s.
But instead of relief at seeing some of the walls that constricted her in her career falling down, Molly began to rebuild them, just like the white people she claims to be worried about. It was almost as if she was threatened by seeing Black freedom in a place where she had never felt it herself before.
Black freedom is terrifying—even to Black people. It’s something that none of us has ever seen uninhibited, and therefore can barely imagine. The truth of the matter is that for Black people to be free, the entire way everyone goes about everyday life will have to change: The everyday reality of America is violence against Black people. In the case of the workplace, that means the way we go about providing for ourselves and loved ones will take a new form, and for those of us who have figured out a way to provide consistently against all odds, that prospect is frightening as hell.
What we often forget is Black freedom is worth it. As Election Day approaches, Black people are bombarded with messages about how our ancestors died for our right to vote in a shameless effort to bully us into supporting people and causes we don’t support. But the real truth is that our ancestors died so we could be free. And loud, if that’s who we are. Like Rasheeda.
And we still aren’t there yet. And people are still dying to get us there, because it’s still worth it. Even though it’s scary. So the next time you see a Black person being a little freer than you’ve ever seen them, or freer than you were ever able to be, let them live. The one they are living in is the world we need.
Hari Ziyad is a Brooklyn-based storyteller and the Editor-in-Chief of RaceBaitR. Their work has been featured on Gawker, Out, Ebony, Mic, The Guardian, Colorlines, Black Girl Dangerous, Young Colored and Angry, The Feminist Wire and The Each Other Project. They are also an assistant editor for Vinyl Poetry & Prose and a contributing writer for Everyday Feminism.