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I Said What I Said - Nikia Webster on Code Switching

By Nikia Webster

Listen we is not the same, you say, "Door", I say, "Dough" You say, "Floor", I say, "Flo", you say, "For sure", I say "Fasho" - Tee Grizzley 

Code-switching, broadly speaking, involves adjusting one’s linguistic code, behavior, or mannerisms depending on the social or conversational context. For Black people, this involves switching from AAVE (African-American Vernacular English), to Standard or “proper” English when applicable. 

Code-switchers do so for a variety of reasons, but for most, it’s an act closely related to our cultures and communities. When code-switching Black people often try to optimize the comfort of others in ways that will, or so we hope, lead to the exchange of fair treatment. 

Janet Van Hell, Penn State professor of Psychology and Linguistics, writes, “Code-switching can occur halfway through a sentence, between sentences, or when one is adjusting their speech to a particular context or situation.” In short, code-switching happens while at work, in communal spaces, and even at home. 

Some consider code-switching to be an indispensable skill, one necessary to maneuver through life successfully, and to some extent, I would agree. Code-switching is, in some cases, seemingly rather necessary. A matter of getting in where you fit in. 

Still, I must ask, at what cost? In my opinion, underneath our instantaneous facades are feelings of shame and resentment embedded in racism, classism, and intellectual prejudices. 

Standard English is often connected with education and status, demanding more respect in social settings. However, in 1997, The Linguistic Society of America, deemed AAVE to have its own set of grammatical and phonetic patterns. Linguistic prejudices rooted in racism have hindered our view of this fact. 

2020 has explicitly shown that while we are becoming more diverse in different areas - media/entertainment, corporate backgrounds, and community engagement - racial inequality continues to endure. As people of color, we have no room for variation, complexity, or identity. Whiteness is the construct, and code-switching is our adaptation. 

A study completed by Harvard Business Review (2019) found, “Seeking to avoid stereotypes is hard work, and can deplete cognitive resources and hinder performance. Feigning commonality with coworkers also reduces authentic self-expression and contributes to burnout.” Code-switching has become more than a method of survival or conformity, now it feels more like a toxin, burden, or unnecessary weight. 

Our desire to not come off “too Black” has left many of us emotionally and in some instances socially handicap. While code-switching isn’t an avoidable act in its entirety I would implore you to consider the pursuit. Not only is the act extremely taxing, but we are frequently short-changed as a community with limited access to health care, unequal pay, and basic civil libertines. No matter how educated we are, how great we believe ourselves to be and no matter how frequently we code-switch, we will constantly be forced to find our way in a country that was designed to watch us fail. Minimizing who we are won’t change that, only how we respond will.


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