A Note on Code-Switching

It’s not my job to be your Black culture vessel.

Carl Anka
LEVEL
Published in
6 min readMar 1, 2017

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Photo: Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

IIt’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…

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Carl Anka
LEVEL
Writer for

I just write about things I’m curious about and upload it when you’re not looking.