The bubbly, overly enthusiastic voice that I used to speak in my sixth grade English class was poles apart from my usual, easygoing tone of voice. At the time, I was in an accelerated writing course with five other white students. Pressure to be accepted in this space forced me to be especially mindful of how I spoke around my classmates, having to censor myself so that I wouldn’t do anything that would compromise their perception of me. As soon as I stepped into the classroom, I put more effort into my enunciation and erased slang words from my lexicon. Words like “y’all” and “ain’t” turned into “you all” and “are not.” I knew it would be easy for others to label me solely based on my speech and demeanor, so I did all of this in an attempt to not be type-cast as the token person of color in the class. Whenever I was in this class, I had to sacrifice a piece of my own comfort in order to avoid potential biases from my peers.
The ability to code-switch is a skill that I had to learn early on in life. Whether for job interviews or answering questions in lectures, it has become a basic instinct. When I was young, my parents always reminded me to “speak properly” at school or at work. Even though they never explicitly said it, I always knew that this was their way of saying, “Don’t let people stereotype you from the way you speak.” While I understood where they were coming from with their cautionary euphemism, I still found it unfair that I had to change the way that I speak to be more palatable for other people. Why is it my burden to avoid being discriminated against?
While code-switching is often mistaken for assimilation into whiteness, it’s really a means of survival. When navigating professional worlds that are known to discriminate against traits associated with Blackness, it’s necessary to take measures to prevent oneself from being shut out of spaces that have historically excluded Black people. Racial biases against Black people about their competency have kept them shut out from white-dominated professional and academic spaces. Racist and xenophobic ideologies have caused people to associate one’s proficiency in English with their intelligence and class standing. This perception tends to lead to discrimination against immigrants from non-Western countries who may not speak English as a first language and Americans who were not raised to speak standard English. Even though this isn’t an accurate measure of intellect, being able to code-switch is a way to maintain leverage in settings where odds may already be stacked against us. In the movie “Sorry To Bother You,” Langston, played by Danny Glover, tells new hire Cassius Green, played by LaKeith Stanfield, to use his “white voice” in order to succeed in the telemarketing industry. The movie dramatizes the practice of code-switching by having both Glover and Stanfield dubbed by voice-overs from white actors (Ryan Coursey and David Cross, respectively) whenever speaking in their “white voices” in the workplace. This may just be a satirical take on code-switching, but it definitely highlights its necessity in the professional world. After he begins to use his “white voice” in the movie, Cassius sees rapid career advancement: He is promoted to a higher position at his job, receives a higher salary and is able to purchase a brand-new apartment and car. This exemplifies the unfortunate reality that proximity to whiteness in professional spaces more often than not results in greater achievement and more acceptance by peers.
We should not have to alter the way we speak in predominantly white spaces to be more palatable to our peers or to deserve their respect. Still, there is beauty in the ability to so fluidly switch up our vernacular. When I think of this fluidity, I recall a spoken-word essay performed by Jamila Lyiscott, a social justice scholar and author. When I watched this performance for the first time at a high school seminar, I was amazed. She easily switched between African American Vernacular English (commonly known as AAVE), Patwa (a Jamaican dialect) and Standard American English as she eloquently articulates the validity of English dialects derived from the Black diaspora. I enjoyed this performance so much because I saw myself and my own family in her narrative. I grew up around plenty of older cousins who, as young Nigerians, were well versed in both Black American and Nigerian culture. We were constantly switching between AAVE, Nigerian Pidgin and standard English. I also think about my own parents, who can quickly go from jovial arguments with my aunts and uncles in Igbo to picking up business calls and speaking in the most refined English. While I can only clumsily string together sentences in Igbo myself, using my Nigerian dialect with my family is another dimension of code-switching that I learned to navigate in and out of.
The reality is that you can’t speak to every person in the same way; one speaks differently to their family when at home, to their friends at school or to a recruiter in a job interview. It’s necessary to have speech versatility to thrive in varying settings. While there surely isn’t anything intrinsically wrong with AAVE or forms of English derived from African or West Indian languages, speaking in such dialects is wrongly seen as a sign of ignorance when it’s really quite the contrary. Being able to do this is a mastery of multiple languages. We can change our tongues to even the playing field of communication for ourselves. Code-switching may have originated as a demand from whiteness, but it serves as an extraordinary example of cultural syncretism and speaks to the resilience of Black Americans across the diaspora. In the words of Jamila Lyiscott, “This is a linguistic celebration.”
MiC Columnist Udoka Nwansi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.