A Note on Code-Switching
It’s the summer of 2015, and I’m struggling to get a piece over the line during a writing fellowship at a well-known website. I’m struggling due to several reasons, but the long and short of it is, I’m not very good at this role. I’m not good at asking for help, and I’m especially bad at taking instruction on how to improve. (To anyone reading this who knew me during that period, I owe you an unqualified apology for my abrasiveness.)
I’m also struggling because my assigning editor keeps reminding me of the adage “write what you know” and encouraging me to write how I speak: “This bit is okay, Carl, but you’re trying too hard. Just write in your natural voice.”
The problem is that how I speak — and the words I use when I speak — vary wildly depending on who I’m talking to and why I’ve chosen to open my mouth.
I grew up in the early ’90s in Leytonstone, East London, a short train ride from the 2012 Olympic Village. Later, I got sent to a tiny private school on the outskirts of Greater London and then attended a selective, mostly White, public school in Essex for sixth form (what you Americans know as “high school”). University was a predominantly White liberal arts university in the West County, and after graduating, I went back to my family home — the location of which, on the line between East London and “suburban” Essex, is a matter of some debate. If you asked me then where I lived, I’d say London and cite my postcode; my friends would tease me by claiming it was Essex. I played rugby on Saturdays next to Essex postmen and bricklayers, then spent Sunday afternoons with my extremely Black aunt (who once asked that if I ever got her a birthday card to make it one with a Black family on it), helping her son with his homework in a flat in East London. In short, by 2015, I had been to a few places and was surrounded by very different demographic groups — so when this editor told me to speak in a natural voice, I wanted to respond that I didn’t have one.
What starts as a trick you pick up early to survive in the White-dominated world becomes a distinct understanding of how to play with language, words, even vocal tone in a given environment.
Instead, I had at least three I flicked through depending on the audience. The word “chief” could mean me trying to show respect to an older work colleague or a teammate on the rugby field — or it could mean I was insulting someone by more or less calling them a prick. “Good morning, chief,” in one voice, is a compliment; “look at this chief over here,” in another voice, not so much. It’s not just the words I use, but how I say them.
Dave Chappelle once joked that “Every Black American is bilingual. We speak street vernacular, and we speak ‘job interview.’” Chappelle is a comedian, but the idea of switching from a “Black” voice to a “White” one has roots in a linguistics term known as “code-switching.” First introduced by academic Einar Haugen in the early 1950s to describe how multilingual people change between languages on the fly, code-switching now encompasses how all forms of communication — verbal and nonverbal — can shift based on an audience.
Code-switching is nothing new to Black people. What starts as a trick you pick up early to survive in the White-dominated world becomes a distinct understanding of how to play with language, words, even vocal tone in a given environment. The 2018 movie Sorry to Bother You focuses on Black protagonist Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), who only begins to climb up the corporate ladder once he starts using his White voice. In one viral video, a Black news reporter slips out of his professional voice into African American Vernacular English (AAVE) when an insect flies into his mouth. In another, President Barack Obama meets the USA Basketball Men’s National Team — and then changes his handshake when he meets Kevin Durant, inspiring the infinitely memed Key & Peele sketch “Obama Meet and Greet.”
“Being a black person in America has always meant that you are not entirely your own,” Ezekiel Kweku wrote for MTV News in 2016. “I do not here refer just to our country’s sordid history of whips and shackles, of the brutality of Jim Crow and the misery of mass incarceration. I refer to the fact that to be black means not only to be a self, but to be a symbol and a stand-in for all black people, to carry the connotations and expectations of blackness on the surface of your skin.” Britain’s history of empire and colonialism means there are similar but different ways I choose to have to adjust myself in public, and there is still often a need. My dad has five ways to introduce himself depending on who he’s talking to and what he wants. A friend from West Africa? Call him Koo Emma. The boss he needs for a favor? Call him Manny. It goes into my daily thinking. What is the best version of me that I want to present to the world today? Will wearing spectacles make me more approachable when I ask a favor in the office? Or will putting in contacts and going with an uncluttered Black face work out better here?
It’s not just frustrating when someone says they find me intimidating, but baffling — like the time a person found me sleeping and described me as “terrifying and huge, like a bear.”
On the cusp of 2020, I have moved again, outside of London to the south coast of England. The Black population is lower here, much like when I was in sixth form and university (and some offices). I think about Kweku’s words often, acutely aware that some people view me as a cipher for people’s thoughts and opinions on Blackness. When I was 18, a White friend of mine remarked that our time at school together must have been frustrating as I was “viewed as an ambassador for Blackness,” having to explain my music, culture, and basic behaviors. I am now 28, and my career still occasionally requires me to do it — in instances both innocuous (“This celebrity is doing this dance that hails from here”) and troubling (“Don’t use that word. That word doesn’t mean what you think it means.”)
It’s not just frustrating when someone says they find me intimidating, but baffling — like the time a person found me sleeping and described me as “terrifying and huge, like a bear.” It can be stifling to have to lessen your person and make yourself smaller in an attempt to appease people. To walk into a professional space, look at the faces, and go, “Ah, let’s pitch this at a level two for now.” It can be especially saddening to know that many attempts to modify yourself are simply futile.
A different voice. A slowed-down office walk. A different handshake. You rarely see me in tracksuits. Is it bad I actively lessen my person in order not to play into other people’s messed up stereotypes? Undoubtedly. But when you’re Patient Zero, with the knowledge you are the first Black person to enter a certain home or to be hired by that company or even to pursue someone romantically, it’s hard not to think about how your actions might shape the other person’s thoughts for Black people. There have been times when I’ve chosen not to get angry about justifiable stuff just because I didn’t want an employer to think, “Oh, we tried hiring a Black person before, but it just didn’t work out.”
Things have gotten better since 2015. I’ve become more confident and learned how to take advice and how to present myself to the world. The need or belief that I have to show a mask to the world to protect myself and any future Black people who walk through the door has lessened as I enter more rooms with more and more who look like me. I’ve come to learn that the best way to be understood is to surround yourself with people who want to hear you in the first place.
I have a mother tongue, and it is not my own. But I’m growing ever more comfortable finding my own voice.