I often like to dub myself as the Code-Switching Queen.
If there was ever a competition for the phenomenon known as code-switching – the switching from the linguistic system of one language or dialect to that of another – I like to think that I would surely at least end up in the top three.
Recently, I explained the concept of code-switching to a white colleague of mine.
Interested in the concept, she then asked me: “Well are you code-switching right now? What do you really sound like?”
In my mother’s home, we spoke “the King’s English” with a bit of a country twang. Mom worked with a lot of white people, had many white boyfriends, and was something of a code-switcher herself. She was raised with the same southern vernacular adorning her side of the family, but just as I would, she had learned to adapt – and fast. And I saw where it got her. People were impressed by her. She was pretty, intelligent, articulate, and funny. I wanted to grab people’s attention in much of the same manner. And so naturally, I began to learn to speak the way in which she did. And in no time, I was becoming quite an attraction myself.
Today, it almost disgusts me how much I enjoyed being praised for things that would have been considered mundane had a white person done them.
My mom’s side of the family liked to poke fun especially when I was younger for things like “talking white” or having so many white friends. So I learned to manipulate the way I sounded around my family.
I became a simple country girl.
I often wonder if my “simple country girl schtick” was offensive.
By limiting my vocabulary, was I then inferring that my family was incapable of understanding what I was saying? And if I did continue to “talk white,” I was worried I would be showing off – even if it was simply how I spoke.So in the end, I humbled myself and blended with my surroundings – not because I thought I was better, I told myself – out of respect for my loved ones.
Looking back, I understand why they playfully teased me. I understand their muted concern for me not being around little Black girls like myself. I would not have the same experiences in life as other black girls. But luckily, that was a lesson I learned myself from being around them.
Adjusting to the dialectical patterns of my newfound white friends proved to be just as taxing, but called for immediate assimilation. It was elementary school in Southeast Louisiana and kids said mean things. Not to mention I was and am hyperaware. I could tell when I would embarrass my friends by saying a phrase incorrectly. I knew what they were really trying to communicate when they corrected me.
“Isn’t, not ain’t” translated to “Please learn to talk like us or no one will accept us as equal. Then how can we be friends?”
And I’ve been prideful for a long time. I’ve never liked being condescended. Intentional or not. I was just as good as these girls and I had to prove it. So I learned to sound like them and I picked up their mannerisms, and I did so quickly because there was no time to be wasted. I learned to be the way they were, because my way was inferior. Theirs was normal, accepted, the standard.
Then I would return to family and adjust once again to the way that they spoke. I had gone from aspiring to do a better job at being white than my white friends, to attempting to be blacker than my Black family (and friends, when I later got them) every single day.
So when my white colleague recently asked me, “What do you really sound like?” I wasn’t sure how to answer. I don’t know.
I’m not sure that I’ve ever been confined to a particular set of behaviors, mannerisms, or speaking patterns because I didn’t come from any one particular thing. My entire being, as a Black American female, is a culmination of so many things.
While I like to honor my African roots, I don’t know exactly where they grow on the massive continent. The displacement that I’ve always felt with language and dialects is part of a much larger displacement I’ve felt being a Black American.
At any given moment, I can choose to adorn a dashiki and rightfully claim it because of my distant connection to the motherland. And then at any other given moment, I can choose to be as American as Taylor Swift– rightfully so, because if anything it was my ancestors who built this land.
Recently, I’ve grown to see this phenomenon not through a lens of displacement, but one of freedom. The Black American is birthed from a culture made from hundreds of years of oppression. Everything that defines us stems from the struggle – our food, the music we create and enjoy, our poetry, the way we raise our children, all down to the way we speak to one another.
I’ve grown to recognize the struggle as my own personal motherland. While that may seem disheartening and exhausting, I find it empowering and liberating. In some twisted yet revolutionary way, I have a place to call home because I am so far estranged from Africa and America will not have me.
The struggle is my motherland, but it does not have to be my current address. Code-switching is the language I was born speaking. It is what I really sound like. The entire world dances to the rhythm of the struggle; tastes the rich flavors that she has produced; emulates the way she expresses anger and joy; and attempts to claim them all as their own. But we are creators.
The Black Americans that are born from the beats of the African drum, the lashes of the American whip, and the oppressive space between the two are the same Black Americans who influence the world.
We are code-switchers by nature. In language, in customs, in being. We yield all the keys and have access to all the doors.