Talking White and Living Black: The Art of Code Switching

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by Hanifa Barnes

“Why you talk white?”

I grew accustomed to hearing this question from classmates throughout my formative years. Growing up as an African child in America, with an east African father and west African mother, my existence was a dual reality. At home, “standard” English was a requirement, but outside of my home amongst my peers talking “White” was not cool.

During the holidays, the sounds and smells in my house were very different from my American friends. Not only was the food distinctly different, but the family chatter consisted of Ugandan and Liberian dialects; a stark contrast to the speech among classmates, but a great boon for my academic experience. My siblings and I would copy our parents in an attempt to “sound” the same. I learned at an early age the art of conversational assimilation. Little did I know that this switch in speech, known as code switching, was a phenomena among various cultures and groups.

Code switching occurs everyday. During the course of a day, it is easy to recognize changes in vocal inflections and word choice when speaking with colleagues, friends, family members and neighbors. W. E. B. DuBois actually alluded to this theory of duality among Black people in The Souls of Black Folk. He discussed the idea of the double consciousness of Black existence in a European society. Code-switching is a more finite theory of DuBois’ thoughts in that the focus is the ability for non-Whites to effortlessly transform into “standard” English speech, cadence and inflection in order to assimilate in society. Essentially, a person alternates between different languages, or in my case, different cultural dialects.

With Standard English as the accepted form of communication in American education, it is a necessity for non-White students to code switch in order to be successful. Standardized tests and various assessments are tailored in the accepted form of English leaving many minority students at an academic and social disadvantage. Code switching actually allows for a worthwhile experience that is acquired organically. For my children who attend an all white school district, this is a reality. At home or with extended family, we talk comfortably in the truest essence of our mixed cultures. Of course, we emphasize the importance of enunciation and articulation of points for clarity and understanding. But when they leave home and head to school, there is an involuntary code switch to fit the environment.

The need to fit in and balance identity in the practice of language or dialect seems like a heavy load to bear for minorities in the midst of societal expectations and demands. This anxiety coupled with the common stresses of adolescent angst can be bittersweet. There were often moments when I enjoyed code switching in high school. I basked in the recognition from teachers and administrators who were pleasantly surprised by my verbal clarity. I recognized that the universal acceptance of Standard English could help me to overcompensate for other challenges I would face as an African child growing up in America.

While I enjoyed the attention and effortless exchanges with teachers, I was often conscious of how I sounded and what I said. Was I too white or too black? Did I use the right word choice? Was my subject verb agreement intact? The down side was that I walked away from conversations doubting myself instead of engaging and appreciating the positive exchanges. I was so focused on speaking “properly” that I disregarded the importance of speaking my heart and being true to myself. I wanted to say what others wanted to hear.

To code switch or not to code switch is the question. Honestly, I don’t think there is always a conscious decision to sound a certain way. Minorities tend to adjust speech and behavior to fit the situation in order to avoid profiling and negative perceptions. To code switch is therefore a deliberate balancing act that can become a welcomed strength of character that enhances maturity and appreciation of communication in all of its forms. It is a masterful skill that can positively affirm one’s identity.

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