Code Switching

By Jaylin Paschal

My parents sent me to a white school in the suburbs. And I mean the suburbs--cobblestone sidewalks and cops who actually fined you for littering. On my first day, I experienced a jolting case of culture shock. I was a first grader transferring from a predominantly black school, living in a predominantly black neighborhood. Needless to say, it was quite the adjustment. I went back and forth from one environment to the next everyday for twelve years. After years and years of practice and fine tuning, one can say I’ve mastered the art of code switching.

I know exactly when to dial down my blackness and when to amp it up. I know when to shake hands and when to dap up. I know when to say “That’s nice” and when to say “Ayeeee;” “Can’t wait” versus “It’s lit.” It’s more than a balance of behavior--it’s a lifestyle. You go from code switching to becoming a code switcher. Eventually it’s not an action anymore, but a habit. And then a character trait. They call it “flexible,” or “adaptable.”

Or, “fake.”

There are pros and cons to having earned this black belt in the switch up. Benefit: I can fit in pretty much anywhere. Drop me downtown or in the country, and I will know how to act and what to say. The obvious negative is that there is a large part of my identity that I constantly feel obligated to pause, or even turn off.

So with both sides of the issue having fairly strong cases, the question becomes, when is code switching flexible and when is it fake? Or, is it ever either one?

Obviously there’s a time and a place for everything, including language and behavior. You’d behave and speak differently in a courtroom than you would in a corner store; you turn off certain mannerisms from home once you get to work. But when you’re around peers--people at your level; your “friends”--why do you feel the need to do so much behavioral editing? These people wouldn’t judge you, right? And they have no authority over you or influence on your livelihood; not a judge or an employer. So why strip down certain parts of your personality? To be more appealing? Approachable? Relatable?

And if the answer is yes, is this a good or a bad thing? Good for you, for knowing your audience? Or shame on you, for watering down your culture?

I’ve been in situations where my chameleon-like ability to fit into these crowds has positively broken down barriers of misunderstanding, prejudice, and stereotypes. But I have also been in situations where I decided to shed or hide my blackness, and therefore gave up a key component of my identity. At certain points in my life, the need to be accepted by suburbia was prioritized over the need to be, not just “black,” but myself.

And so again, having mastered code switching, I am now at this crossroad of cultures. I have found a relatively happy medium--and if not happy, then at least not miserable. I still filter for body language and mannerisms and slang, but I never censor myself to the point where my voice isn’t mine anymore; my actions not my own. I am never one extreme or the other; not comfortable enough with it to be just “flexible,” not uncomfortable enough with it to be just “fake.” I think it’s fair to say that I’m both, simultaneously even.

However, to some code switching is neither “flexible” nor “fake.” It just is; an automatic behavioral phenomenon. Gene Demby, lead blogger for NPR's Code Switch team, explains code switching as the way “many of us subtly, reflexively change the way we express ourselves all the time. We’re hopscotching between different cultural and linguistic spaces and different parts of our own identities--sometimes within a single interaction.”

The quote raises the (perhaps unanswerable, but not rhetorical) question, is code switching just a way to handle more than one identity? Or is it, rather, a way to stretch your own?

Share your thoughts and answers in the comments below.