CODE-SWITCHING DIARIES #3
The Power of Collective Realness
What happens when we stop asking others to change for our comfort?
When my classmate rattles off the answer in her Atlanta accent, it sounds like a half-defrosted pork chop baptized in grease. The discomfort pops against my skin, tangible and heavy. All I can do is smear it away from the pockets of my elbows and knees and pray that she stops trying so hard, soon — before our more privileged classmates learn the secrets of our most subtle and effective armor again racism in academia: code-switching.
Code-switching: Using a Karen voice instead of a Keisha voice (knowing the difference). Minimizing Black culture to accommodate “standard” American culture. Spending two hours on an email. On this paragraph. Because I am worried one grammatical mistake will minimize my ability to be heard.
Or as Urban Dictionary puts it: “Speaking in a particular way: using particular terms, references depending on who you’re addressing/ interacting with.”
If you’re not familiar with the term, then you have likely never been asked to change yourself to be accepted into spaces. For Black students like myself, it’s often the first thing we’re taught.
The year is 2016, and I am attending my first political science lecture at an Elite™ University — the kind of university where wealthy parents bribe officials to give their mediocre children a spot in its ranks. The kind where I accidentally end up on a diversity poster if I stay out on the university’s front lawn for too long. While the university offered us plenty of (endless) new student orientation events to make us feel at home, not a single student warned me how often my presence would be questioned and interrogated.
In my first month alone, my peers tried fitting me into a small box of Black American culture. A floor mate reminded me of my apparent genetic predisposition to stupidity after I was accepted into an elite academic program on campus (“black people have the lowest IQ and SAT scores in the country, don’t you know that?”), some insisted that my academic success was due to a miraculous, Deep-State force known as diversity and secret affirmative action meetings (I’ve never been invited to any of these secret “affirmative action” meetings, but would love an invite).
Even my fictional characters couldn’t escape this burden — in one of my writing classes, a white peer questioned how authentically “Black” my characters were, as this fictional character’s voice didn’t sound very Black to her. I think the worst growing pain, however, was suddenly feeling that I was speaking a second language, when English was my native language. Even other Black students rebuked my authentic voice, either for being too white or not Black enough.
I felt both invisible and on-display at the same time. Sidewalks and class discussions only held so much space, and as a freshman with severe impostor syndrome, I just wanted to blend in for once, even if it meant compromising my voice, and believing that others needed to compromise too.
If I could not just exist as I was, I figured others could not either — I thought we were in it together to find out how to survive that burden.
So now, as I watch the girl fumble over her words, I think of correcting what she says to sound more palatable — projecting my insecurities onto her. Y’all is translated to everyone here, ain’t to may not understand, etc. I tell myself that I just want to help. But the truth was, if she failed to be understood, it would reflect poorly on me too. Even Michelle Obama understands this feeling of collective success and failure. As she writes in her memoir Becoming:
“If in high school I’d felt as if I were representing my neighborhood, now at Princeton I was representing my race. Anytime I found my voice in class or nailed an exam, I quietly hoped it helped make a larger point,”
But after my classmate finishes talking, I realize that she looks entirely unbothered — the professor understood her just fine, and she made her point without having to repeat herself. Why should she care what the rest of us think of her?
It is an exhausting process to be heard, but it’s even more exhausting to be someone you aren’t.
Many of us have been taught to believe that people with broken English or unfamiliar dialects are not worthy intellectuals. Conversely, that Black people with bamboo earrings and durags never contribute anything meaningful to intellectual endeavors (except, maybe to music). That AAVE (African American Vernacular English) prohibits meaningful discussion of theory, literature, and other art forms. That people who naturally speak like this, or even a little bit like this, won’t change the world.
“ One ever feels his two-ness, an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder…longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self”
Code-switching is evident in popular shows like Insecure, too. In one episode, a young black intern named Rasheeda joins the law firm that Molly works at. Molly is initially thrilled to have another Black woman in her predominantly white work space, until she learns that Rasheeda has no plans to ditch her “Black” voice for the sake of her white coworkers’ comfort. Molly attempts to correct Rasheeda’s tone, but Rasheeda isn’t having it, and tells her to save her “house slave” rhetoric, because she isn’t changing anytime soon.
Molly is clearly embarrassed that a much younger woman is so much more confident in her identity. Unfortunately, that small victory for Rasheeda is short lived, because their supervisors ask Molly to give Rasheeda some help adjusting to the “work culture”. In other words — go get your sister, she’s acting up and not speaking right.
I realize now that I don’t want to be the Molly in this situation (also, home girl needs to listen to her therapist, is all I’m saying), nor do I want to be Rasheeda. I want to have the luxury and privilege of being myself — not just one brand of Blackness that I’ve been told to submit to.
I am now in the process of undoing this burden — unlearning the idea that respectability politics will promise better career paths and higher pay than my non-code-switching peers. That being a palatable form of Black will lead me to elite spaces.
I am learning to not prescribe these burdens to other Black people, even in my head. Why fix what’s not broke?
Months later, I found out that the girl who I was apparently so embarrassed by received an A in the class — y’alls and all. I didn’t, and the professor cited my “stiff” writing voice as one of the sources of my final grade. From that moment, I swore off respectability and signed onto collective authenticity. Why spend the energy fitting yourself and others to a prejudiced person’s expectations?
After promising to be my authentic self, I felt less stressed, more confident, and less concerned with the behaviors of my peers. By evolving from code-switching to an easy cadence of authenticity, my writing improved, too. Writing in my authentic voice even got me a full-ride scholarship to Harvard University.
Although I have benefited from this change, it is a terrifying idea to abandon the myth of Code-switching and embrace collective realness. I fear telling others to change, too. Many of us believe that sounding “respectable” (whatever that means), will get our foot in the door. Perhaps even save our lives. This essay doesn’t even begin to touch on the colorist, sexist, and transphobic experiences that force some of us to code-switch and behave a certain way.
Embracing my code-switching worked for me, but will that work for others without the same financial and social security net to fail? Am I truly following my own advice when I still use my “white” voice to call my Bank? Or speak with a landlord?
Am I truly following my own advice when I still use my “white” voice to call my Bank? Or speak with a landlord?
While I want to believe that a simple change in my voice can change the systemic issues that plague this country, I am learning that code-switching is somewhat of a coping mechanism, but mostly a lie. However, I will not prescribe the best mode of survival for Black folks in this country. My job is to simply aspire towards this collective realness by not worrying over others, and focusing on myself.
It took small steps to get there, like not opening my mouth to correct someone who was not in need of correcting (that girl in the classroom was the first example), saying “y’all” comfortably around my professors, not being embarrassed to wear hoop earrings and afros and head wraps. I still do not use slang around my supervisors and professors, but I also will not correct myself if something pops out by accident. They’re smart enough to ask questions if they’re confused.
This can lead to awkward moments of confusion, but I remind myself that I am not responsible for someone else’s comfort if they’re harming me or others. And, at minimum, my coworkers and peers can handle or a “y’all” or two over a Zoom call.
The Codeswitching Diaries are an intimate collection of short fiction, vignettes and micro-memoirs that explore the humor and discomfort that comes with being a Black woman in elite spaces. You can find the first installment here.