Last September, when Remy Barnwell, 26, started dating Ben Podnar, who is white, she was hesitant to wear her hair in its natural state. As a Black woman, she was uncertain of how he would respond to her tightly coiled strands.
On her first date with Mr. Podnar, Ms. Barnwell, a tax attorney in Washington, D.C., arrived wearing box braids that concealed her natural Afro. Six months would pass before she let Mr. Podnar see her kinky coils.
“I definitely noticed the first time she took her braids out and I remember her being very concerned about how I would feel,” said Mr. Podnar, 29, an audience development director for the Center for American Progress in Washington.
Ms. Barnwell, who said straightening her hair since childhood “reinforced the idea that my natural hair was not enough,” was pleasantly surprised at Mr. Podnar’s response to her Afro. “At first I was really nervous, but he was immediately obsessed with it, which was a relieving and satisfying moment,” she said.
“I know a lot of people in her life have criticized her tight coils, so it’s especially been nice getting to see her feel that attraction from me no matter how she wears her hair,” added Mr. Podnar, who said he likes all of the different ways Ms. Barnwell styles her hair.
Hair isn’t the only thing Ms. Barnwell said she has toned down when getting to know someone who is not Black. She won’t play soul music, wears clothes that don’t expose her curves and avoids using African American Vernacular English, commonly known as Ebonics, in conversations.
“I also wore my Birkenstocks to my first date with Ben, which I’d never wear on a first date with a nonwhite man,” Ms. Barnwell said.
The alteration of hairstyles, clothes, and interests in order to gain social acceptance and limit the risk of falling victim to bias is a form of code-switching, a term that refers to the common practice of adapting or altering speech, dialect, look or behavior depending on the social setting.
Ms. Barnwell and other Black people say code-switching is common when they date interracially because first impressions determine if a second date is in the cards.
Joseph Lamour, 38, a journalist and illustrator who lives in Washington, said it wasn’t until a white boyfriend confronted him about his change in vernacular that he realized he altered his speech.
“We were driving to Boston and got a little lost, so I asked a Black person on the corner for directions,” said Mr. Lamour, who is Black. When he rolled his car’s window back up, Mr. Lamour said his then-boyfriend, a white man, asked why his voice changed when he spoke to the man. “I hadn’t even noticed I did it, but then he did an impression of it and it all came full circle,” he said, and added: “It’s kind of like a job interview where you sort of make yourself more corporate-sounding in order to seem more standard so that a second date can happen.”
Mr. Lamour, who said he mostly dates white men, later realized he code-switches in other ways when meeting someone who isn’t Black for the first time. “When I’m going on a first date, I consciously put on clothes that make me appear to be a Don Lemon-type instead of a 50 Cent-type — even though I have both types of clothing,” he said.
For Black people and other minority groups, code-switching is a way of existing within multiple worlds at once by repressing their authentic selves while playing up behavior seen as acceptable by a majority.
While a person of any race may adapt their authentic self to make a good impression on a date, this switch in behavior is often more prominent in interracial or interethnic relationships.
“The greater the perceived distance, cultural difference, or racial difference between the two people involved, the more code switching is likely to occur,” said Kathleen Gerson, a sociologist and professor at N.Y.U.
Breuna Westry, 24, who lives in Austin, Texas, and works as an assistant marketing director for Clinical Compensation Consultants, said she mostly dates white men. Originally from New Orleans, Ms. Westry, who is Black, said she uses a vocabulary that is authentic to the Black community in her hometown. However, she said she consciously changes her vocabulary when going on a date with someone who isn’t Black.
“The slang is ingrained in me. I say things like ‘yes’m’ which is a total Southern, Black country term,” Ms. Westry said. “But sometimes I feel that I wouldn’t necessarily use certain phrases around the white guys I date.”
She said her mother’s use of Southern slang has also made her anxious about introducing her family to that of a prospective partner who isn’t Black.
“My mom is in her 60s and old-school, from Mobile, Alabama,” said Ms. Westry. “She feels comfortable in the way that she talks and I would never want somebody to judge her intellect level or anything based on that, because my mom’s a smart nurse.”
In the United States, the application of code-switching outside of linguistics is historically and culturally Black.
In his book “The Souls of Black Folk,” first published in 1903, W.E.B. Dubois described such behavior as “a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”
But it wasn’t until the 1970s that Black academics began using the term code-switching to describe their interactions and relationships with white people.
Shan Boodram, a Los Angeles-based sex and relationship educator, who is Black, Indian, and white, said many Black Americans see code-switching as an obligation, rather than a choice.
“Code-switching is speaking specifically to Black people who have to assimilate, or feel that they have to assimilate, to white culture in order to receive success,” Ms. Boodram said, including “a romantic potential with somebody” who is white.
“There are so many negative stereotypes associated with blackness: if you dress a certain way, look a certain way, or if your hair is a certain way, you get lumped into what is perceived as ‘urban culture,’ and that’s not seen as professional,” Ms. Boodram added. “And maybe for some people, that’s not seen as the person that you want to bring home to mom.”
Black women in particular resort to code-switching when dating because of the bias they often face, a result of being stereotyped as angry and discontent, hypersexualized and lacking positive representation in TV and film. This bias has led to Black women being the least contacted on dating apps and facing the most racial and sexual discrimination in online dating settings.
“If we’re talking about interracial dating, specifically about Black women, they might ask, ‘Do I feel comfortable with showing myself to this person that maybe has their own preconceived notions about Black women? Is there some eroticism or thoughts around what it means to date me as a person?’” said Camille Lester, a relationship therapist based in New York, who is Black.
“Everybody, when they’re dating, puts on some type of mask and then the longer you’re with someone, or the closer you allow yourself to get, you take off pieces of that mask,” Ms. Barnwell said, adding: “It’s especially difficult to take off pieces of that mask when you’re a Black woman because we’re already the least appreciated.”
While code-switching might be the thing that gets someone a second date, those who acknowledge doing it said it wasn’t a long-term strategy. Mr. Lamour said that, lately, he has been interested in dating only people who are comfortable with his authentic self.
“I’ve been getting more comfortable with myself and therefore the person that I’m going to be with is going to have to be comfortable with me, because I am,” he said.
Ms. Barnwell had a similar realization. “I finally got to a place where I didn’t really want to spend the time or money to get my hair braided again,” she said of the moment she decided to let Mr. Podnar see her natural hair. “I was like, ‘OK, am I going to let my white boyfriend see me with my Afro?’ And I really had to tell myself this was dumb, and if he sees me in my Afro and he hates it, then we simply should just break up.”