In September 2020, 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 Podnar, Barnwell, a tax attorney in Washington, D.C., arrived wearing box braids that concealed her natural Afro. Six months would pass before she let 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 Podnar, 29, an audience development director for the Center for American Progress in Washington.
Barnwell, who said straightening her hair since childhood “reinforced the idea that my natural hair was not enough,” was pleasantly surprised at 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 criticised 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 Podnar, who said he likes all of the different ways Barnwell styles her hair.
Hair isn’t the only thing 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,” 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.
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 Lamour, …….