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.