Ask A Mentor
Cracking the Code
Aaron Rahsaan Thomas gives advice to a fellow Black writer on code switching.
As the saying goes, you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. When that chance arrives in the form of an important meeting, many writers weigh whether or not to show up as their authentic selves. S.W.A.T. showrunner Aaron Rahsaan Thomas answers one writer’s question about whether or not to code switch, the practice of adjusting one’s behavior, appearance, or language to make the other parties in an exchange feel more comfortable or receptive.
Question: “I have a really thick Southern Black accent. Will I be viewed as unintelligent (by whites and BIPOC) if I don't code switch during pitches, meetings, or interviews?”
Aaron Rahsaan Thomas: The short answer: The business is changing. In an age when authentic voices are being recognized and valued more than ever, I encourage you to be yourself. The most professional, well-prepared version of yourself. For those who are listening, intelligence speaks for itself.
It’s difficult to predict who might consider you not intelligent. In a business driven by anxiety and fear, some people may not overtly indicate their opinion of your level of intelligence. In cases where they do indicate their opinion, it is often difficult to predict what they might base that opinion on. Could be your accent, your gender, your culture, your ethnicity, your class, the perceived quality of your formal education, or a combination of multiple factors—for better and for worse.
Ask yourself what type of environment you’d like to work in. There are elements of this business who may view you a certain way, simply because of who you are, whether you switch the tenor of your voice or not. For those who might change their opinion because of your voice sounding different, you want to ask yourself if that’s the type of person you want to work with.
If the answer is yes, then employing specific strategies may be necessary to navigate social biases and assumptions. These obstacles are older than Hollywood, but this business has certainly seen its share of artists deciding to be strategic about how they dress, what they say, and how they say it, based on the environment they choose to work in.
As a writer starting out, I submitted a spec script to one of the biggest producers in Hollywood. I received flattering compliments from this producer who liked my writing so much that they only had one significant note: to remove my middle name from the title page, because it was the only indication that I am a Black writer. When asked why this detail was significant, the producer provided a candid answer: no matter what type of story I wrote, for some producers, knowing a Black writer wrote it would cause them to read the story hearing stereotypical Black voices inside of their heads.
I considered the possibility of this, and made a personal judgment call; I had no desire to work with individuals who evaluated material based on stereotypes. So, I chose to keep my middle name on every script I write. Right or wrong, that was a personal choice. I choose what types of environments I prefer to work in.
Your personal choices start at the very beginning of any professional opportunity, with every meeting, pitch and interview you take. It’s not just them interviewing and evaluating you—it’s also you interviewing and evaluating them. Define the essence of your voice, what makes up your voice, and how important it is for you to convey that voice when telling your stories, either on the page or in person. Ultimately, only you can determine that.
Send your questions about the craft, job hunting, your career, or Guild service to Connect (under 100 words, please) with the subject “Mentor,” and we’ll send them to an established screen or TV writer to answer. Questions might be edited for space or clarity and will be published anonymously. WGAW mentors provide informal career advice and are not expected to read scripts, give notes, hear pitches, or help find representation or work.
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