Black Skin, “White” Speech: an Analysis of Code-Switching

“Why you sound just like those white kids at your school?”

“Yo, you’re wildin’. This is my voice. I don’t know what you’re talkin’ ’bout,” is my typical response to a question like that. Whenever I spend time with friends back home during breaks and/or talk to them on the phone, I am bound to get that question. I am still not sure how to avoid “sounding white.” I question whether or not I am “black enough” for my friends at home.

I’d imagine that the most salient change in my life was the transition from a predominantly black public high school to a predominantly white private college. Whether I knew it or not, during my transition, I altered the way I communicated with certain audiences; I maintained two separate identities made possible through language and expression. I was code-switching.

Code-switching refers to the practice of shifting the languages you use or the way you express yourself in your conversations (Deggans 2013). It occurs daily and, for me, is most noticeable in greetings. Back home in Brooklyn, NY, I’d greet a black friend by saying, “What’s good?” By using this language, it sends a message to my friends that I know the jargon of the “hood” and it reaffirms my blackness. On the contrary, at my current school, Hamilton College, I tend to greet my white friends with, “Hey. How are you?” in a very lively tone to convey that I am friendly and welcoming like every other student. Essentially, code-switching involves a certain particularity with one’s word choice and expressions whether speaking to friends, family, teachers, coworkers, etc. Words must be tuned to fit the context in which they are situated.

W.E.B DuBois’ “The Souls of Black Folk,” connects this concept of double consciousness to race. Referring to blacks, Dubois states that “to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face” (DuBois 1903), Blacks must navigate two culturally separate identities and communities. While I assume my Negro identity at home and use the African American Vernacular English with friends, I make a conscious effort to be grammatically sound when in a white environment. When Standard English is most valued in our prestigious institutions, blacks must not only show that we are “articulate” enough, but enunciation and articulation become strongly emphasized. We can’t comfortably drop the “g” at the end of our words or mess with the syntaxes of our sentences.

However, in retrospect, the subconscious, yet sometimes conscious, changes in my tones, inflections, and accents mean something significant. Code-switching is not just a valuable skill but is essential to maintaining our dual identities. Restricting the use of Standard English in a predominantly black community enables one to not be seen as elitist, pretentious or as “acting white.” Being able to switch back into Standard English with white friends allows me to avoid being constantly corrected and displays that I am “articulate” enough to be a student at Hamilton College.

Code-switching IS taxing work. While I am developing the cultural capital necessary to be successful in lucrative white-collar jobs, it comes at a cost. My on-off switch seems to be malfunctioning. I may use words like “superfluous” in place of “mad extra” or “egregious” instead of a phrase like “yo that’s wild crazy” when talking to my black friends. I find myself struggling to communicate with friends, as if we don’t all speak English. And maybe we do, but just in different ways. However, as long as I find myself in two different social contexts, code-switching will continue to be a necessary tool for survival.

4 thoughts on “Black Skin, “White” Speech: an Analysis of Code-Switching”

  1. This blog post is so relatable especially as a black Hamilton student that goes back to an urban community like Cambridge and Boston during vacations. I code switch all the time even while on campus with both minority students and white students. Excellent writing!

  2. This is an insightful post. I struggle with the same thing. I was raised in a mostly white neighborhood and went to a school even whiter than Hamilton. I find that I code switch not only depending on the other parties in the conversation and our location, but based on what is being discussed. I also consciously code switch into “AAVE” in predominantly white environments sometimes, just to challenge people.

    Of course, we also have to qualify the term “AAVE”—there’s simply no monolithic linguistic norm that all black people conform to. I’m interested to know whether you code switch between different black vernaculars with different black people, as I do. As we often joke in my hometown of Washington, DC: if you’re not from the DMV (that stands for DC, Maryland, and Virginia, but refers to the DC Metro Area), you won’t understand 40% of what we say, regardless of your race. My black family in far southeastern Virginia wouldn’t know what I was saying to my black friends in the city, and vice versa. My grandmother would demand to know who “moe” was (that’s… difficult to explain), and my DC friends would wonder what on earth it means when my grandfather says “the hawks’ biting.” (That means it’s cold, by the way.)

    I’ll be interested to see how we all navigate code-switching in the future. I’ve known many black people who spoke in vernacular dialects up until college, then more or less permanently code-switched into the white, Northern vernacular which has been called Standard. It’ll be curious to see whether any of us do that, and if so, who and why.

  3. Thank you so much for sharing this. As someone who didn’t understand that these different social contexts existed, this is something that I will never forget. In high school, I remember agreeing with my white teammate that it was annoying how our black teammate “talked different/black” when she was with our black friends, but “normal/same” when she was with our white teammates. A couple of months ago, my roommate corrected my thinking that a black acquaintance “wanted to be white” because, but not limited to, who he hung around with at Hamilton, the way he dressed, and the way he spoke. She told me that he explained that in thinking this way, it was perpetuating the belief that equated being well-dressed and enunciating words as white, and the other side being black. I think that experience, and this blog post, really hammers home how code-switching isn’t a bad thing. As someone who is neither black nor white, I can’t help but wonder if these social contexts HAVE to be different; would it be better if we had the same context? This is something that I plan on asking someone who is more educated than I am, but just something I was wondering at the end of your post. Thank you again for sharing this, I really learned from it!!

    1. Hm, it’s interesting that you ask “would it be better if we had the same context?” because I have the same question. In everyday life, how one communicates with others changes whether it be talking with a friend, professor, counselor, acquaintance, parent etc. I think that this type of often unconscious code-switching is helpful for us to make distinctions between social relations and communicate to others our understanding of those differences. On the other hand, the context in which these codes exist are muddled with our society’s systems of oppression such as racism, sexism, and ageism. In a way, it seems as if the social pressure surrounding code-switching reinforces our society’s flaws. For one, it is terrible that the stereotypical ‘white way of talking’ is more closely tied to the ‘professional way of talking’ than a stereotypical ‘black way of talking’ is (although admittedly –there is more diversity than similarities likely within each racial group). This may give some blacks yet another social-capital obstacle, because some lower socioeconomic-status blacks often need to gain more experiences with that specific way of talking, while affluent whites, on the other hand, are swimming in it.

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