Ten Tips for Sisters Who are Ready to Unshift

Hey, Sis. Are you tired of policing your thoughts, your behavior, and your image? Are you starting to feel like you’re not keeping it all the way…real? You may be suffering from a bad case of code shifting…

Image: Dark skinned woman with full afro, wearing a yellow off-the-shoulder sweater. Image courtesy of pixabay

When I had something I wanted to say in white-centered spaces, I had to make sure there wasn’t a single wrinkle in my name brand blouse or a stray hair popping out my kitchen. I spoke with the diction of an English literature professor and carried myself with the poise of Michelle Obama. My neck didn’t dare rotate, and I never spoke higher than my indoor voice. I filtered my opinion, sedated my conviction, and weeded out everything that nodded to a stereotype before parting my lips to speak. Code shifting is a lot of work.

Not to be mistaken with speaking properly or having manners (which is a standard most races and cultures uphold), code shifting is a fluid behavior that’s equal parts performance and survival. It requires removal from the race, ethnicity, or culture you were born into. No group of people is more pressured to fall into the white-passing formation than Black women. For us, shifting is a way of escaping the plethora of racial tropes that follow us. It only takes one misinterpreted action to assume that a Black woman has an attitude, is sexually reckless, poorly mannered, offensive, uneducated, etc.

To be fair, code-shifting — also referred to as cultural assimilation, has its benefits. For Black folks, it works best during job interviews and office hours, interactions with the police, on campus, applying for residency in apartment complexes and gated communities, and situations where staying alive and blending is a priority.

There comes a time when Black girls and women make a conscious decision to detach themselves from their ‘other’ self; that’s usually when the process of unshifting begins. As liberating as unshifting is, it can be pretty scary. It requires intense emotional labor. There’s no road map to direct you to your most organic Self. It requires a consistent dedication to listening to who you are beyond the white gaze and chains of respectability.

In an attempt to help other Sisters who are emotionally prepared to begin their unshifting journey but don’t know where to begin, here’s a list of tips and tools to ease the process of unshifting.

10. Stay Well Read

Audre Lorde. Melissa Harris-Perry. Britteny Cooper. Angela Y. Davis. Isabel Wilkerson. Assata Shakur. These intellectual Olympians will take you by your literary hand and guide you through the path that leads to your truest, Blackest Self. Reading about the facts and lived experiences of Black women who understand the duality in our identity is a balm for the unshifting soul. Here’s a brief-but-essential list of books written by Black women who will help you re-route you back to your Self.

Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America by Charisse Jones and Kumea Shorter-Gooden, Ph. D.

Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde

Sister Citizen by Melissa Harris Perry

The Becky Code by Catrice M. Jackson

9. Speak Less and Pay Attention to Everything

How often do you code switch? What kinds of people trigger you to crank up your level of code shifting? Is there a part of you that’s secretly impressed by how well you navigate through white society? Your answer to these questions is likely to lead you to your most authentic Self.

Rather than force yourself back into the role of the ‘other’ version of you when you’re in white-centered spaces, make a decision not to speak if you’re not going to sound, act, or behave like You. This doesn’t mean you should be rude, but, you should definitely show the utmost restraint around white people during this crucial stages of unshifting. We don’t owe anyone small talk, and we are by no means obligated with making them feel comfortable in our presence. Silence is a virtue, and, when it comes to unshifting in white-centered spaces, it’s a necessity.

The cover of Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America

A MUST READ for every Sister who’s ready to unshift. Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Woman in America by Charisse Jones

8. Go On a White Cleanse

Some may think that the idea of a white cleanse is radical, but, some allow goats to sniff their butts while they appropriate yoga, soooo…

The objective of a white cleanse isn’t necessarily to rid oneself of white people — entirely. For most of us, our interaction with them is unavoidable. That’s why a white cleanse aims to center, amplify, and focus on uplifting and exploring Blackness as much as humanly possible. From the music you listen to, the people you hang out with, to the food you eat, the stores you shop, and the shows you watch. All. Black. Everything. Stay away from Friends binge-watching or scrolling down the Pantsuit Nation timeline.

When I did my first white cleanse, I went on a strict cultural diet, only allowing myself to indulge in music, art, and entertainment that centered Black women. I started my first one-week white cleanse in January of this year and I’ll be done… any day now.

7. Get into Your Scalp

There’s no woman who’s body is more political than that of one with unapologetic 4C coils. Whether you’re team natural, or you’re about that bundle life, embrace your hair. It’s literally the Blackest thing about us, and they’re all going to die mad about it. Do you wear your hair in the style it’s in because you love it, or because it keeps things… simpler (aka the whites ask fewer questions)?

Maybe you’ve been aching to do the big chop, or you’ve got a few bundles of twenty-two-inch Brazilian hair itching to be sewed in. Create a sacred ritual of red wine, Queen Sugar, and massaging your scalp. Or, sit your ass down for enough hours to get those Janet Jackson box braids you’ve always wanted. Try a lace front. Whatever look you go for Get. Into. It. And, not because people are less likely to get on your nerves, but because it’s the hair you want to rock.

6. Get in Touch with Your Ancestors

Many will say that Black Americans are ‘descendants of slaves’. It isn’t true. We are the descendants of a great people who, while enslaved for a period of time, were more than their entrapment. It doesn’t take long to think about the grandfather before your grandfather’s grandfather; the one who crossed the ocean, whose flesh and seeds were passed down to the very blood that pumps through your veins. Despite the white-washing and carnage that colonizers imprinted in our legacy, we are the descendants of warriors, not slaves. From the oceans we cross to the soil we stand on, our ancestors are always there. If the oppression and pain that our people have survived are embedded in our DNA than so is the warrior spirit. That’s the energy that needs to be channeled to tap into your level of Blackness that’s immune to assimilation. Learn about your roots, ask questions about your ancestors to the elders in your family, and never allow your gratitude for what they endured to waiver. The truest parts of ourselves come from them.

5. Lean into Your Sisters

There’s no one who’s going to understand the challenges of your unshifting process better than other Black women, which is why you have to lean on them more than ever in order to get through this process. For those who don’t have Black relatives they can spend time with or a local community to get involved in, take advantage of the diversity and Black-centered spaces on social media.

During the embryonic stage of my unshifting, I had no Black girlfriends and I was lonely as hell. It took me a while to realize that in order to find solace from Sisterhood, I was going to have to find it. It took a lot of intention and patience, but, after a while of showing up to offline events (as well as creating my own), and joining Black-centered spaces on social media, my circle of Sisters expanded. Today, the Black women I call friends are some of the most important people in my life. Go get you some Sister friends!

4. Forgive Yourself, Sis

Every time you allowed white paws to poke at your curls will haunt you as you begin to unshift. Long-lost memories of misogynoir, bias, and racial disparities will run laps in your brain. This is rough, but, also necessary. I wasn’t proud to admit how much I enjoyed playing up to the ‘exceptional token’ trope, but I wouldn’t be keeping it real if I didn’t admit that I did. And, rule number one about unshifting: keep it real at all times (or at least the times when it won’t get you fired or incarcerated).

The only way you can become the authentic Self you aspire to be is by getting real with who you were when you embraced those colonized ways. Be gentle with yourself as you’re revisited by the times you chose to blend instead of stand in your truth. Remember that you would never have shifted if you didn’t feel like you had to. Instead of beating yourself up about the past that you can’t change, be grateful that you love yourself too much to pretend to be anyone else today.

3. Cancel Anyone Who Doesn’t ‘Get’ It

When I first started unshifting, I wanted the world to know that there was a whole other me I had been suppressing, a me I hadn’t even met yet. Sadly, there were a few ‘friends’ who couldn’t understand the depth of the challenges I was experiencing. I found myself in a weird headspace anytime I was around these ‘friends’ who refused to believe that code shifting is an actual thing that was eating me alive. These people are dead to me now.

The process of unshifting is one that is complex, isolating, and at times, incredibly emotional. The only friends you need during this process are the ones who are willing to hold space for you as you walk through this journey of self-discovery.

2. Let Go of Respectability

Respectability is the boot that rests its heel on the throat of the collective Black woman. Those unspoken rules and codes that stifle our liberation and restrict our growth are cancer to our unshifting soul.

One of the hardest challenges with unshifting is recognizing the ways that we have adopted and accepted respectability and acknowledging that it’s bullshit. Respectability politics police Black women, restricting us from exploring cultural, intellectual, and artistic images of ourselves that would be deemed stereotypical. It also causes damage to our relationships and views of other Black women. When accepting respectability for ourselves we’re likely to enforce it on other Black women, making us feel entitled to look at others as ‘ghetto’, ‘embarrassing’, or canceling a Sister because she makes us ‘all’ look bad.

Unshifting allows Black women and Black femmes to embrace the reality that we are non-monolithic unicorns, unbeholden to any tropes, stereotypes, or respectability. So, stop making fun of the Black woman who doesn’t code shift and realize that she is free.

1. Trust the Process

There’s going to be times when you want to go back to the way you were. Maybe you’ll miss your old friends or the habitual routine that was centered in being that ‘other’ you. The closer you get to your organic Self, the more you begin to realize that you didn’t like things you thought you had and find enjoyment in things that would have seemed foreign to the ‘other’ you. You may find that the person you are unshifted and organic is one that is too unfamiliar to your liking. Don’t stop now, Sis. There’s a breakthrough that’s bound to bloom from this breakdown.

Unshifting is scary, and it’s supposed to be. Most people live and die trying to fit in and blend. Black women have an awesome ability to tap into ourselves and speak our native tongue: Black Woman (yes, Black Woman is a language). It’s worth moments of confusion and second-guessing. There’s something at the end of unshifting that every Black woman deserves. It’s the liberation of her art, her body, her politics, her image, and her Self.

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